SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Princeton men’s basketball is finally over the hump.
Thanks to a comfortable 78-63 win over Missouri in Saturday’s NCAA Second Round matchup, the Tigers are advancing to the Sweet 16 for the first time since the tournament field was expanded to 64 teams in 1985.
“I’ve always dreamed of playing deep into the tournament,” head coach Mitch Henderson ’98 said after the win. “As a player, I got to the second round a couple times. Never got beyond it. I feel like these guys, it’s unbelievable.”
Before he took over as the head coach, Henderson was best remembered as a member of the Princeton squads of the late ’90s, including the 1996 team that beat UCLA — a fact that he can’t seem to escape despite his 2023 team’s success.
“He doesn’t like to talk about that game a lot,” forward Tosan Evbuomwan ’23 told the media before the Missouri game. “I think he tries to stay very focused on us and our team right now, what we’ve done, what we are setting out to do.”
“I’m not avoiding it,” Henderson said. “But each team that advances has something special. I think that of our group.”
Perhaps that “something special” for this year’s crew is its rebounding. The Tigers followed up their astonishing outrebounding of Arizona in the first NCAA game by crushing Missouri on the glass, 44–30. Caden Pierce ’26 had 16 boards on his own, a career-high and the second-most so far in the 2023 NCAA Tournament, behind Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe.
Princeton used its dominance inside to set the tone for the game. In the first half, a combination of inside strength from Keyshawn Kellman ’23 and a barrage of three-pointers from Ryan Langborg ’23 helped build a double-digit advantage.
Missouri wouldn’t go away easily, though; it cut the lead to seven with a buzzer-beating lay-in at the end of the half, and trimmed the Princeton lead to 43–37 with just under 11 minutes remaining.
Saving the day was Blake Peters ’25, who made five three-pointers in the final 10:42 of the game. Having also made three triples in the Arizona game, Peters has been the player Henderson and company have turned to when they’ve been in need of a deep shot. His play widened the Princeton lead, and ultimately rendered it insurmountable.
“[Peters] wants to be Secretary of State, he’s absolutely unflappable. You get my vote,” Henderson said in the postgame presser, turning to Peters.
“He’s very calm under pressure,” Henderson added. “That’s how he is. That’s how he goes about his business.”
As a team, the Tigers improved from long-range in the Missouri game compared with the Arizona win. Against Arizona, Princeton was 16 percent from long range; against their Show-Me State foes, they more than doubled their percentage, shooting 36.4 percent. They will likely need to keep up their strong shooting to keep pace with their Sweet 16 opponent, Creighton, an 85-76 winner over Baylor in the second round.
Oddly enough, Princeton follows New-Jerseyan program Saint Peter’s — who made the Elite Eight in 2022 — as the second-straight Garden State 15-seed to reach the Sweet 16. The New Jersey basketball magic has been at play elsewhere in the tournament, too: On Friday, 16-seed Fairleigh Dickinson (Teaneck, N.J.) beat top-seeded Purde in one of the biggest upsets in tournament history.
“I guess there’s something in the water,” Ryan Langborg ’23 said. “Something’s helping us.”
“It’s great to represent New Jersey, [to] bring it home for all the people there. We’re over the moon.”
Only time will tell if Princeton can carry this magic deeper into March.
“We’re not done yet,” Langborg said. “We’ve got a bunch of games left.”
Wilson Conn ’25, one of The Daily Princetonian’s head sports editors, is covering the NCAA Tournament games in Sacramento, California.