SACRAMENTO — To hear the Princeton Tigers tell it, they sensed an upset at least 20 minutes before the basketball world saw what was coming.
It was halftime, they trailed second-seeded Arizona by just 1, and, as junior guard Matt Allocco said, it was loud in the locker room.
“Everybody had something to say,” he said. “‘Stay with it.’ ‘We got this.’ ‘Stay in the moment.’ ‘We’re going to make big plays.’”
By the time the Tigers finished a stunning 59-55 win, sending Arizona home and Princeton on to a Saturday game against Missouri, the decibel level among the team and the fans had increased to thundering proportions.
Nearly three decades after a Pete Carril-coached Princeton team knocked off U.C.L.A. in one of the greatest upsets in N.C.A.A. tournament history, the Tigers had delivered another big moment. It was noisy, it was chaotic, and it was oh-so-memorable.
“To beat a great team like that on this stage is a pretty special feeling,” Allocco said.
The heavily favored Wildcats led for most of the game. It wasn’t until senior guard Ryan Langborg drove the lane for a layup that Princeton earned its first lead, with just over 2 minutes remaining. Once they got it, they held it.
Princeton, seeded 15th, closed with a 9-0 run, following the same script as when it downed U.C.L.A. in 1996. The Tigers held Arizona scoreless over the game’s final 4:43.
In their scramble to stay alive in the tournament, Courtney Ramey and Kerr Kriisa each missed 3-point attempts in the final seconds for Arizona. When Tosan Evbuomwan grabbed a rebound with three seconds left, Arizona fouled. He made the first free throw, missed the meaningless second, and as the clock expired, the Tigers mobbed each other in celebration in the city in which Carril, their Hall of Fame coach who passed away last August, finished his career with the N.B.A.’s Kings.
“There’s going to be some comparisons from some of you, I’m sure, to Coach Carril,” said Princeton coach Mitch Henderson, who played for Carril and was an instrumental part of the 1996 win. “I want to be really clear that this group did this.”
“This group did something special for its university, for the fans, for the former players and for one another,” he added.
Princeton won despite shooting just 4 for 25 from 3-point range and going to the free-throw line just five times. The Tigers had missed their only free-throw attempt before getting four more chances in the final 21 seconds.
Arizona didn’t get many opportunities at the line, either; Coach Tommy Lloyd was not happy that his team took only seven free throws. As always, its game plan was to push the ball inside to 7-foot Oumar Ballo and 6-foot-11 Azuolas Tubelis, and to draw fouls. But it seemed as if Princeton always had two or three players step in to guard whoever had the ball. Langborg and Keeshawn Kellman each had two blocks, and Zach Martini played exceptional defense from the bench.
“When the game is reffed like that, it makes it tough,” Lloyd said. “When your advantage is negated a little bit.”
The Tigers, who went 21-8 and won both the Ivy League regular-season title and the conference tournament, were determined, however, not to be intimidated.
“Maybe an upset on paper and the country, but not to us,” Henderson said, adding: “We think of ourselves, and we have historically, as a national program.”
He pointed again to the Sacramento connection, mentioning Geoff Petrie, the former general manager of the Kings and a Princeton alumnus who brought Carril into the N.B.A. as an assistant coach and adviser.
“He was a first pick in the draft,” Henderson said. “Princeton alum. We have pros, too, just like they do.”
Evbuomwan, who Princeton associate head coach Brett MacConnell said has drawn interest from nearly every N.B.A. team, led the Tigers with 15 points and was the only player on the team to score in double digits.
Now the Tigers will take aim at a Missouri team that held Utah State, ranked fifth nationally in 3-point field goal percentage, to just 4 of 24 from that range while knocking off the Aggies, 76-65.
But after taking down Arizona, Princeton doesn’t figure to be intimidated by the next challenge.
“To have a day of preparation is quite nice,” Henderson said.
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