Near the beginning of the second half of Princeton’s Sweet 16 game against the Creighton Bluejays on Friday night, Creighton big man Ryan Kalkbrenner, who stands 7’1”, threw down a monster dunk on 6’7” Princeton forward Zach Martini. Kalkbrenner’s mass sent Martini, who fouled the Creighton star on the play, careening backward; Martini took a few steps before falling to the floor. The basket, plus Kalkbrenner’s foul shot, put Creighton up seven, 52-45, with just over 18 minutes left.
But more than anything, the slam felt like a statement. Creighton was just too big, and too skilled, on this evening. The Bluejays would go to win the game, 86-75.
An unlikely run for Princeton, the No. 15 seed in the South region, is now over. After shocking No. 2 Arizona and silencing No. 7 Missouri in the first two rounds, these Tigers became just the fourth 15th seed to ever reach the Sweet 16 in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. The Tigers hadn’t gone this far in the tournament since 1967.
The Elite Eight is now all set. Florida Atlantic, the No. 9 seed in the East, plays No. 3 Kansas State in one regional final, in New York City tomorrow. Out West, in Las Vegas, No. 3 Gonzaga faces No. 4 UConn. Miami, a No. 5 seed in the Midwest region, shocked No. 1 Houston on Friday to reach the Elite Eight, where the Hurricanes will play Texas in Kansas City on Sunday. And in the South, No. 5 seed San Diego State faces Creighton on Sunday in Louisville.
Read More: Exclusive: Behind the Scenes With Princeton–the Cinderella of March Madness–Ahead of the Sweet 16
This will be the first time, since the NCAA began seeding teams in 1979, that the Elite will have no top-seeded teams.
Princeton students, fans, and alums traveled from all over the world to Louisville, to witness a potentially historic run to the Final Four. Before the team headed to the arena, Princeton coach Mitch Henderson addressed a raucous crowd of some 700 Princeton supporters gathered in a hotel ballroom. He shared words a poet friend texted to him about the Tigers. “If this team were a mode of conveyance, it would be a parachute, dropping behind enemy lines.”
The fans went nuts.
“I’ve been calm all week,” Henderson said in a quiet moment afterward, before he boarded the bus. “But my heart was racing after that.”
At times, it felt like a Princeton home game, especially when the Tigers got hot in the first half. The Tigers shot 51% in the first 20 minutes, and 50% from three-point range. The problem: Creighton could barely miss. The Bluejays shot a 62% from the field—and 50% from long-range—to take a 47-43 lead at halftime. Fans witnessed a high-level offensive display, from both teams.
While Creighton continued to pour in the offense at the start of the second, the rims tightened up for the Tigers. Princeton came out shooting 1-5 in the half—and missed three straight layups. With 12:33 to go, the Bluejays went up by 16, 68-52. Princeton marksman Blake Peters, who hit two threes in the first half, missed all four of his attempts in the second. He walked off the court with tears in his eyes.
Mostly, Princeton had no answer for Creighton’s size and skill. Kalkbrenner finished with 22 points, on 9-12 shooting. Slivery lefty Baylor Scheierman was lights out: he finished with 21 points, on 9-11 shooting overall, and 5-7 from three. He even banked a three-pointer in the second half. Trey Alexander added 19 points.
Creighton likely would have won by a larger margin, but Princeton made a defensive switch— to a 1-3-1 zone—with just under 10 minutes left in the game. The move slowed Creighton down a bit, but the Bluejays hit enough threes, and made enough smart passes down low to the bigs to create mismatches against Princeton’s smaller players, to keep the margin safe.
Two Princeton seniors, Ryan Langborg and Tosan Evbuomwan, provided the bulk of the scoring for the Tigers, finishing with 26 points and 24 points, respectively.
They’ll both be greatly missed in New Jersey.
After the final buzzer, the Princeton players and coaching staff walked across the court to the team’s orange-clad cheering section at the KFC Yum! Center. Everyone saluted one another. It wasn’t the ending anyone wanted. But what a Cinderella ride.
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