SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — When Mitch Henderson took over as coach at Princeton he wanted to give his players a lasting memory like his own — the one from 1996 when as a player he was part of the Tigers that shocked defending-champion UCLA in an iconic March Madness upset.
He delivered on a new lasting memory for Princeton with the 15th-seeded Tigers’ first-round win over powerhouse Arizona.
Now there’s a new hurdle to climb.
“That game, for those that played in it, it gets brought up to all of us regularly,” Henderson said Friday about the win over UCLA. “This will happen to these guys over time, too. It will be even better if you make the Sweet 16. We want to keep dreaming big here with the group.”
After winning a tournament game for the first time in 25 years, Princeton (22-8) can earn its first berth in the Sweet 16 since 1967 when only 23 teams were in the tournament by beating seventh-seeded Missouri (25-9) on Saturday.
Princeton followed its last two tournament wins in 1996 and ’98 with losses in the second round.
“The Sweet 16 sounds pretty good to me,” star forward Tosan Evbuomwan said. “Obviously that’s what we’re working toward. That’s the next step. There’s a game in the way of that. So that’s where we’re putting all our chips in on.”
Henderson called the win over Arizona “a million times better” than the ones he enjoyed in the tournament as a player against UCLA in 1996 and UNLV in 1998.
He also appreciates that it will give Princeton new memories to celebrate. A photo of him leaping in victory after the UCLA win is still is displayed in Princeton’s gym, and Henderson hopes the image earns new company.
“That photo is all over Jadwin (Gymnasium),” Henderson said. “I’m glad we can take it down now and put some new photos up. As a player, you’re the beneficiary of so much. You don’t realize it. You think the world’s right in front of you, and you got it all figured out. You get into coaching and you realize how hard those moments are to replicate.”
The hours following the 59-55 win over Arizona has been a bit of a whirlwind for the Princeton players, with a team dinner Thursday night, countless congratulatory messages and then the preparation for the game against Missouri.
“It’s crazy how many people are watching this game — 15,000 here yesterday, national TV. There’s not a bigger stage than this,” forward Zach Martini said. “Just to see how many people pay attention, how many people care that we won a basketball game, it’s like, ‘Wow!’”
The stage this week for Princeton has been almost like a Hollywood script.
Princeton was matched up with a West Coast powerhouse in the first NCAA Tournament since the death of legendary coach Pete Carril in the city when he finished his coaching career as an NBA assistant after retiring from the Tigers.
“I think this group, Coach would be very proud of them,” Henderson said. “He’d love the way we play together.”
While the style of play at Princeton has modernized since Carril’s era when the Tigers would bleed most of the shot clock on nearly every possession until exploiting the defense with a backdoor cut, there are still similarities.
Princeton’s offense still revolves around a passing big man, with Evbuomwan averaging nearly five assists a game.
“Obviously Coach Carril inspired and Princeton inspired,” Evbuomwan said about the offense. “We play probably a little bit faster. We try to push the ball when we can. I think some of the same kind of themes still exist in terms of just playing, limiting play calls, guys having the freedom to play off one another. Obviously the selfless style of basketball that we play on offense. Definitely some big themes remain, but it definitely has evolved.”
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