SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Nearly three decades since he helped Princeton to a legendary tournament upset of UCLA as a player, coach Mitch Henderson again has his hands on a piece of history as the No. 15-seeded Tigers shocked No. 2 Arizona 59-55 on Thursday.
“I’ve been the beneficiary of that game [against UCLA], along with my teammates, for a long time,” Henderson said of Princeton’s upset as a No. 13 seed in 1996. “But I’m the coach here and my charge — I’m very present about this — is I want that for them. That’s very, very simple. And they did that today. They made so many people proud and happy today. They deserve it.”
The Tigers’ upset marked the third straight year and 11th time overall that a No. 15 seed won a first-round game.
Making sense of how they pulled it off is a bit more difficult. The Tigers trailed by 10 with eight minutes to play, didn’t make a free throw until there were 21 seconds left and shot just 4-of-25 from 3-point range. This all against an Arizona team that is exceedingly more athletic at every position and has three players in its eight-man rotation who are 6-foot-11 or taller.
None of that mattered. Princeton outrebounded Arizona 38-37, had six blocks to Arizona’s one and was far more energetic, especially in the second half.
“It may be an upset on paper and to the country, but it is not to us,” Henderson said.
Arizona became the first team in NCAA tournament history with multiple losses to 15 seeds in any round. The Wildcats also fell to Steve Nash and 15-seed Santa Clara in the opening round of the 1993 tournament.
For Arizona, which aspired for a deep tournament run after winning the Pac-12 tournament, the loss represented an incredibly disappointing end to what was mostly a very good season.
“There’s going to be some bad with a lot of good [at Arizona] and I’m built for it,” second-year coach Tommy Lloyd said. “This is gonna be a small setback. I mean this — not for me. I’m just sad for these guys. They don’t get to experience how special an NCAA run is. Because these guys were built to do that and we ran into a good team today that, that made all the right plays at the right time and we weren’t able to separate from them enough.”
Lloyd didn’t have second thoughts about his gameplan, which sought to exploit the Wildcats’ advantage down low, but expressed some surprise at the way the game was officiated.
“You sit here in my seat. You have an All-American big guy, an All-Conference big guy, you go inside over and over and over and over again and shoot seven free throws,” he said. “I don’t know if they’re fouls or not, but — they must not have been because obviously they didn’t get called. When the game is reffed like that, it makes it tough. You have an advantage that gets — either they’re really physical and not fouling or they’re not calling the fouls. And, and I haven’t reviewed the game, so I’m not saying one way or another, but it makes it tough.”
Princeton was led by English forward Tosan Evbuomwan, who scored 15 points with 7 rebounds and 4 assists. It will play No. 7 Missouri in the second round Friday.
Princeton won as a 16-point underdog, giving the Tigers the largest upset victory by an Ivy League team since the NCAA tournament expanded in 1985, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. That record was previously held by Harvard, which beat New Mexico as a 10.5-point underdog in 2013.