SACRAMENTO, Calif. — As chants of “Sweet 16! Sweet 16!” cascaded through Golden 1 Center from one corner of the building Saturday, Kobe Brown untucked his Missouri jersey and headed for the locker room. Noah Carter followed, raised his left hand and saluted the crowd. DeAndre Gholston grabbed the basketball and chucked one last shot at the rim. Nick Honor lifted his jersey over his head, wiping away the tears that follow every season’s final buzzer.
Those chants were for the authors of March’s latest Cinderella story, the No. 15 seed Princeton Tigers, who lived to see another weekend of March Madness with a 78-63 victory. But every fairytale finish comes at a cost for someone — and that someone Saturday was Mizzou.
Oh, the madness of March. A team that embraced its underdog role all season, Dennis Gates’ Tigers arrived in California this week undefeated as betting favorites, but this time stumbled as the high-major heavyweight. Princeton, meanwhile, had to beat top-seeded Yale in Sunday’s Ivy League tournament to even make the Big Dance, then stunned No. 2 seed Arizona to set 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 outplayed No. 7 seed Mizzou in all aspects of the game to clinch its first Sweet 16 appearance in 56 years.
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How thorough? Princeton’s 15-point margin of victory was the largest in the tournament’s history for a No. 15 seed. This was Mizzou’s 51st game all-time in the NCAA Tournament and tied for its third-worst margin of defeat.
Did Princeton (23-8) have the better team or the better season before Saturday’s tip-off? Few could argue yes. But the Ivy Leaguers played the far superior game, leading Mizzou (25-10) on the scoreboard for nearly 38 minutes.
“We were able to get the lead one time,” Mizzou coach Dennis Gates said. “We held the lead for 30 seconds in the entire game. Every time we got the lead or when they had the lead, we cut it to six, they came back down and did what a good team would do: Make a shot or make a play.
“It just wasn’t our day to make those plays or make the same shots.”
Princeton also exploited two of Mizzou’s season-long weaknesses that resurfaced at the worst of times: rebounding and 3-point defense. Mitch Henderson’s team dominated the glass 44-30 and outscored MU on second-chance points 19-2. Two days after stifling Utah State from the perimeter, Mizzou let Princeton run its halfcourt offense to maximum precision. The underdogs from New Jersey 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 matched his career-high with 17 points. Ryan Langborg was Princeton’s most lethal threat, finishing with a game-high 22 points.
Princeton’s Caden Pierce, a 6-6 freshman, grabbed 16 rebounds by himself, including seven offensive boards. Ivy League player of the year Tosan Evbuomwan scored only nine points but directed quarterbacked Henderson’s attack from the frontcourt with five assists.
“I would say it was a complete opposite of Utah State,” Honor said. “Rebounds and 3s when it came to it. They’re a hell of a team.”
“Truthfully, we let them do what they do best, run their offense, the Princeton offense,” Brown added. “They had a lot of tough shots but also a lot of open shots. That was our fault. We let them get to what they wanted to do and that really changed the game.”
On the other end of the floor, Mizzou’s offense was stagnant from the start as Princeton clogged the driving lanes, forcing the Tigers to settle for jumpers that rarely fell. Gates’ team shot just 6 of 22 from behind the arc and wasn’t much better closer to the rim, missing 10 layups. The officials barely used their whistles when Mizzou had the ball, calling just nine Princeton fouls. When bodies collided in the paint — or in D’Moi Hodge’s case, when his skull crashed onto the court early in the second half — the crew consistently let the action flow. As a result, Mizzou attempted a season-low seven free throws.
“They keep their body in front of their guys,” Henderson said of his defenders. “Good old-fashioned, tough-nosed defense.”
Brown, who finished with 12 points, credited Princeton’s high hands on defense for blocking his vision through the barrage of double teams in the post. Princeton kept a defender glued to Hodge all night, holding him to a season-low two points in his final college game.
Mizzou missed 10 of 11 shots midway through the first half, going scoreless for more than three minutes heading into a much-needed timeout. Gates switched to a zone defense on a late possession but Langborg carved right through the Tigers for a 31-19 lead.
Mizzou finished the half with a jolt. Honor beat the shot clock with a corner 3-pointer, then on the half’s final possession, Sean East II sank a baseline jumper at the final buzzer, trimming Princeton’s lead to 33-26 at the break.
“We had high spirits (at halftime,)” Brown said. “We were trying to encourage each other, show each other what we were doing wrong. I wouldn’t say we were overconfident because obviously we had been losing the whole game.”
Mizzou got within five points of the lead with a quick Brown bucket to open the second half, but Princeton came back with pivotal 7-0 run. In the process, Mizzou lost Hodge when he soared to the rim for an offensive rebound but slammed the back of his head on the court as he landed. With 16:48 left in the half, Hodge headed to the bench where he stayed until the 9:25 mark.
By then, Princeton had taken complete control. Peters’ 3-pointer with 9:37 left pushed 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, is to do it in front of your family here, watching back at home. I hope they’re proud of me.”
Peters and the rest of Princeton’s plucky bunch now marches onto Louisville, where they’ll represent the Ivy League in Friday’s Sweet 16 game against the winner of Sunday’s Baylor-Creighton matchup. The last time Princeton was part of the bracket’s round of 16 came in 1967 — just two years after Missouri’s own Bill Bradley suited up for Princeton.
For the other Tigers, Saturday’s season finale officially sent Gates into the offseason. He sat on the postgame dais alongside his four players whose college eligibility expired with Saturday’s loss: Hodge, DeAndre Gholston (19 points) and team captains Ben Sternberg and Tre Gomillion, whose groin injury kept him on the sideline for all four of MU’s postseason games. Brown, coming off by far his best college season, could elect to turn professional or use his final season of eligibility. Others, too, will have decisions to make, though core veterans like Honor, Carter and East figure to return for their final college season.
“Right now I just want to grieve with my teammates, especially the four who are out of eligibility,” Brown said. “In the offseason, me and Coach Gates will sit down and have those conversations when we’re ready.”
“We weren’t supposed to be here at all in the first place,” Gomillion said, his eyes red from the tears that flowed in the locker room. “We weren’t supposed to make it to the semifinals of the SEC. I mean, at the end of the day we lost … but we have a lot to be proud of.”
In his final minute on the sideline as a college player, Gomillion showed why he’s been a beloved teammate and hailed by the staff as a future coach. As the seconds ticked away, he approached Gates with a suggestion: Put Sternberg in the game. On cue, Gates signaled for his walk-on to check in for the season’s final 26 seconds.
Closure soon followed on a season few could have seen coming but an end that came with no doubts.