SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Chants of “Sweet 16! Sweet 16!” Descending through the Golden 1 Center from one corner of the building on Saturday, Kobe Brown unbuttoned his Missouri jersey and headed into the locker room. Noah Carter followed, raising his left hand and greeting the crowd. DeAndre Gholston grabbed the basketball and made one last shot at the rim. Nick Honor lifted his jersey over his head, wiping away tears, which follow the final buzzer of each season.
Those chants were for the makers of March’s latest Cinderella story, the No. 15 seed Princeton Tigers, who saw out the second weekend of March Madness with a 78-63 win. But every fairytale finish costs someone — and that someone Saturday was Mizzou.
Oh March Madness. Dennis Gates’ Tigers entered California this week as undefeated betting favorites, but this time they stumbled in the heavyweight main event. Princeton, meanwhile, had to beat No. 1 Yale in Sunday’s Ivy League tournament to even reach the Big Dance, and then stunned No. 2 seed Arizona sets up Saturday’s matchup. In its third game in six days, a Princeton team that lost regular-season games to Delaware, Navy, Brown and Dartmouth thoroughly beat No. 7 Mizzou in every facet of the game to earn its first Sweet 16 appearance in 56 years.
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How thoroughly? Princeton’s 15-point margin of victory was the largest in tournament history for 15th place. It was Mizzou’s 51st game in the NCAA Tournament all-time and the third-worst margin of defeat.
Did Princeton (23-8) have a better team or a better season before Saturday’s tip-off? Few would argue yes. But the Ivy Leaguers played a far superior game and led Mizzou (25-10) on the scoreboard for nearly 38 minutes.
“We were able to get the lead once,” Mizzou coach Dennis Gates said. “We held the lead for 30 seconds the whole game. Every time we got a lead or they had a lead, we cut it to six, they went back down and did what a good team would do: Punt or play.
“It just wasn’t our day to make those plays or make the same shots.”
Princeton also took advantage of two of Mizzou’s season-long weaknesses that surfaced at the worst of times: rebounding and 3-point defense. Mitch Henderson’s team dominated the glass 44-30 and beat MU’s second chance with a score of 19-2. Two days after stifling Utah State at the border, Mizzou allowed Princeton to run its half-court offense as accurately as possible. New Jersey’s underdogs consistently created open looks from 3-point range, connecting on 12 of 33 shots from deep. Reserve guard Blake Peters, the grandson of two Mizzou graduates, torched his grandparents’ alma mater with five 3s and a career-high 17 points. Ryan Langborg was Princeton’s deadliest threat, finishing with 22 points.
Princeton’s Caden Pierce, a 6-6 freshman, grabbed 16 rebounds himself, including seven offensive boards. Ivy League Player of the Year Tosan Evbuomwan scored just nine points, but led quarterback Henderson’s offense from the frontcourt with five assists.
“I would say it was the complete opposite of Utah State,” Honor said. “Shooters and 3s when it came. They’re a damn good team.”
“Really, we let them do what they do best, run their offense, the Princeton offense,” Brown added. – They had a lot of hard shots, but also a lot of open ones. It was our fault. We let them get to what they wanted to do and it really changed the game.
On the other end of the floor, Mizzou’s offense stalled from the start as Princeton clogged driving lanes, forcing the Tigers to settle for jumpers that rarely fell. Gates’ team shot just 6-of-22 from beyond the arc and wasn’t much better closer to the rim, missing 10 shots. The referees barely used their whistles as Mizzou dominated the ball, committing just nine Princeton fouls. When bodies collided in the paint — or, in D’Moi Hodge’s case, when his skull hit the court early in the second half — the crew let the action keep flowing. As a result, Mizzou attempted a season-low seven free throws.
“They keep their bodies in front of their guys,” Henderson said of his defenders. “Good old-fashioned, hard-nosed defense.”
Brown, who finished with 12 points, credited Princeton’s high arms on defense for blocking his vision in a flurry of double teams. Princeton kept a defender on Hodge all night, holding him to a season-low two points in his final varsity game.
Mizzou missed 10 of 11 shots midway through the first half. He was in scoring position for more than three minutes and headed for the much-needed overtime. Gates switched to a zone defense late on the possession, but Langborg put the Tigers through for a 31-19 lead.
Mizzou ended the half with a bang. Honor beat the shot clock with a corner 3-pointer, then on the final possession of the half, Sean East II sank a baseline jumper at the final buzzer, cutting Princeton’s lead to 33-26 at the break.
“We were in a good mood (at halftime),” Brown said. “We tried to encourage each other, show each other what we did wrong. I wouldn’t say we were overconfident because we had obviously lost the whole game.
Mizzou got within five points on a quick bucket by Brown to open the second half, but Princeton came back with a decisive 7-0 run. In the process, Mizzou lost Hodge when he went up the rim to attack the offense but hit his head on the court as he landed. With 16:48 left in the half, Hodge headed to the bench, where he remained until the 9:25 mark.
By then Princeton had taken complete control. Peters’ 3-pointer with 9:37 left put Princeton ahead by 10 — and the Tigers led by double digits the rest of the way.
“They’re very passionate Tiger fans,” Peters said of his grandparents, Russell and Gail Smith, who graduated from Mizzou in the 1960s. “But I know they were cheering for their grandson today. That’s what makes things like this so special, to do it in front of your family here at home watching. I hope they’re proud of me.”
Peters and the rest of Princeton’s motley crew now march on to Louisville, where they will represent the Ivy League in Friday’s Sweet 16 game against the winner of Sunday’s Baylor-Creighton game. The last time Princeton was part of the Round of 16 was in 1967 — just two years after Missouri’s own Bill Bradley made it to Princeton.
For the rest of the Tigers, Saturday’s season finale officially sent Gates into the offseason. He sat courtside after the game alongside four of his players whose college eligibility ended in Saturday’s loss: Hodge, DeAndre Gholston (19 points) and team captains Ben Sternberg and Tre Gomillion, whose groin injuries sidelined him for all four of MU’s postseason games. . Brown, coming off by far his best college season, could choose to go pro or use his final season of eligibility. Others will have decisions to make as well, even with key veterans like Honor, Carter and East returning for their final varsity seasons.
“Right now, I just want to mourn with my teammates, especially the four that didn’t qualify,” Brown said. “In the offseason me and Coach Gates will sit down and talk when we’re ready.”
“We weren’t even supposed to be here in the first place,” Gomillion said, eyes red from tears in the locker room. “We weren’t supposed to make the SEC semifinals. I mean, at the end of the day, we lost… but we have a lot to be proud of.”
In the final minute on the sideline as a college player, Gomillion showed why he’s been a beloved teammate and the staff has hailed him as a future coach. As the seconds ticked down, he approached Gates with a proposition: Put Sternberg in the game. Finally, Gates pointed to his check-in for the final 26 seconds of the season.
A season that few could have seen coming soon followed, but the end came without doubt.