With just over five minutes remaining in Princeton’s first-round NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament game against Arizona, Caden Pierce ’26 blocked a pass attempt by Wildcats center Oumar Ballo, dove on the loose ball, and called timeout to secure possession. It was the kind of athletic, heads-up play that made Pierce the Ivy League Rookie of the Year. But this time, it came with a price.
“That’s our last timeout,” head coach Mitch Henderson ’98 told his team on the sideline.
There was no panic. In fact, Henderson says, there was some laughter — and confidence. “We didn’t need that timeout,” Ryan Langborg ’23 recalls thinking.
“They were having the time of their life,” Henderson says. “And I was like, ‘I think we’re gonna win this game.’”
The moment might feel different if Princeton hadn’t gone on a 9-0 run to close out a 59-55 win and stun the second-seeded Wildcats in Sacramento, California. It may have faded if the Tigers hadn’t continued their path with a dominant 78-63 victory over Missouri, in which Blake Peters ’25 came off the bench to make five second-half 3-pointers and propel the program to a spot in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1967.
But Henderson, looking back on the experience in early April before leaving for a family vacation, insists that even if his team had lost, that timeout would have been one of his favorite moments in coaching because it showed what kind of team he had.
“The beauty of the run was that the joy they played with resonated with everyone,” he says. “I think people weren’t just happy that we went to the Sweet 16, they were happy with the way the team played. There was savvy and guts and toughness — and joy and togetherness.”
That joy brought alumni together, first at the Ivy Madness tournament, which Princeton hosted for the first time this year, and then a week later in orange-and-black group hugs in Sacramento. At the Sweet 16 in Louisville, Kentucky, the Tiger faithful filled a hotel ballroom to give the team a roaring sendoff a few hours before game time. The red lights around the middle tier of the arena, which is home to the University of Louisville, seemed to take on an orange glow as “Let’s Go Tigers” chants rang out across the court before tipoff. “It was like nothing I had ever experienced before,” Langborg says.
Pete Carril, the legendary Princeton coach who died in August at age 92, famously recited his father’s aphorism, “The strong take from the weak, but the smart take from the strong.” These Tigers were both strong — outrebounding Arizona and Missouri — and smart, dishing out 38 assists while committing just 25 turnovers in three tournament games. Even on the night of their final defeat, an 86-75 third-round loss to Creighton, the Tigers produced brilliant performances, including Langborg’s career-high 26 points and Tosan Evbuomwan ’23’s stellar line of 24 points, nine assists, and six rebounds.
On paper, this may not have been one of Princeton’s greatest teams; others have won more games and earned higher rankings. But overcoming setbacks was part of what made the Tigers endearing. As Henderson says, they were “a work in progress all season” and supremely capable when it mattered most, in the closing weeks of the Ivy League schedule, at the league tournament, and in two weekends of March Madness.
Evbuomwan, standing outside the locker room after the Creighton game, was asked what he would miss about playing basketball at Princeton.
“The guys,” he said without hesitation. “I’m not sure I’m going to find another group like this. We just look out for one another all the time. I’ve never really had this — there’s no ego at all amongst us. We don’t care at all who’s getting the attention, who’s scoring points, who’s doing this, who’s doing that. We just really root for one another and want to see each other be successful.”
Like all of Princeton’s seniors, Evbuomwan will graduate with one year of college eligibility remaining because during the pandemic, the Ivy League did not compete in the 2020-21 season. He would have been a prized graduate transfer, but he has declared for the NBA draft instead. In early April, Langborg and center Keeshawn Kellman ’23 were exploring their transfer options after playing key roles in the tournament run. (Editor’s note: Kellman announced he’s headed to Florida Gulf Coast University, while Langborg will play at Northwestern.)
When the Tigers waved goodbye to their fans before midnight on March 24, it was hard to imagine that eight days earlier, Princeton was just another tournament team, soaking in the bright lights, hoping perhaps for a four-second cameo in CBS’s “One Shining Moment” montage. Kellman says warming up for the first-round game was a thrill — knowing he was about to finally play in the NCAA Tournament. When he watched his teammates seal the win over Arizona from the free-throw line, he felt “pure joy.”
“Every moment of that two weeks,” Kellman says, “I’ll never forget.”
Brett Tomlinson is managing editor of PAW.