Column: Despite different results, Princeton, Rider look ready for March
Plus: Fairleigh Dickinson is going dancing, and the Princeton women landed another No. 1 seed.
SOMEWHERE IN MERCER COUNTY – The Princeton and Rider men’s basketball teams have more than a few things in common.
Besides their campuses being located just seven miles apart here in Mercer, besides both teams clinching the No. 2 seeds in their conference tournaments, you get the sense that Princeton and Rider are never out of a game.
It’s instructive to look back on how these teams have gotten to this point. Princeton (10-4 Ivy League) had nine of its 14 league games decided either in overtime or by seven points or fewer in regulation. Rider (13-7 MAAC) had a whopping 15 of its 20 conference games decided either in OT or by six points or fewer in regulation.
And while the Tigers and Broncs experienced different outcomes Saturday on their respective Senior Days, they each displayed the multilayered scoring capabilities, the energy and the resolve that a team needs to get red-hot in the month of March.
The Tigers were in the process of getting completely and utterly Jordan Dingle’d at Jadwin Gym. Dingle, the second-leading scorer in Division I, historically hasn’t hurt Princeton too badly. The Penn guard was limited to 21 points on a season-low 27.3% shooting percentage when Princeton beat the Quakers at the Palestra in January. Dingle had 21 by halftime Saturday; the Quakers’ largest lead was 19 and the halftime discrepancy was 42-25.
Coach Mitch Henderson seemed well aware of the significance of that number 19 – identical to the largest lead Princeton held two weeks ago before allowing Yale to storm back and beat them in overtime.
“We lost that exact same game two weeks ago,” Henderson said afterward. “It was awful. Awful. It ripped us open.”
The Tigers shot 4-for-19 from three in the first half, and I thought they’d need to start making everything from three to have a chance at a comeback. I was wrong. Much of what Princeton got in the second half came in the paint and at the foul line. They still missed a ton of 3-pointers – 28 by the end of the game. But they used the full 20 minutes of the second half to chip away at the deficit.
“We talked about, there’s a path to this and this is what it looks like. Sixteen-minute mark we wanted to be (within) 12, and then the 12-minute mark we wanted to be at eight,” Henderson said. “We were off by two each time. Then the last four minutes we got it within six. A little behind schedule, but you know, you’re there, and then the game gets tighter and that’s what we were hoping to create.
“It felt like a championship game between Penn and Princeton. I didn’t say much. These guys made great plays down the stretch. That’s a really special win.”
A special win not only for beating a rival on Senior Day, but to clinch a share of the Ivy League regular-season title as well. Yale’s win later in the day made for a two-way tie at 10-4, and Yale’s sweep of the Tigers gave it the No. 1 seed in the Ivy tournament this week. Still, Princeton is sitting pretty at No. 2.
I asked Tosan Evbuomwan, whose leadership and second-half dominance made a world of difference, how this season’s photo finish and all these close games can help Princeton entering Ivy Madness.
“The last stretch of this regular season, every game’s been huge, every game’s been a championship game, so that should give us confidence going into the tournament to be able to get it done,” Evbuomwan said. “That was a championship game, and Harvard the game before was similar. I think we’re going to have great confidence going into the tournament knowing we’ve been here, played in these type of games before, we’ve been in these big moments to keep our poise and be able to get it done.”
If there was any lingering doubt, Caden Pierce should have locked up Ivy League Freshman of the Year honors with his team-leading 17 points and 10 rebounds Saturday. Penn seemed to grab every rebound of Princeton’s missed threes in the first half, but Pierce and his teammates didn’t stand for that in the second.
In one sequence, Pierce nabbed a steal under Princeton’s basket and drove it upcourt. The Tigers tried a three and missed, but Pierce – a wing who finished fifth in the league at 6.8 rebounds per game – grabbed the board to keep it alive. The Tigers missed again, but Pierce was there to bat it out to a teammate on the wing. Xaivian Lee took the third try and connected, cutting it to 48-38 and forcing Penn to call a timeout.
Possessions like that, with freshmen playing like seasoned veterans, are how a team hangs around.
“It wasn’t just me, it was other guys too that were getting offensive rebounds and really getting those extra possessions,” Pierce said. “When you get an offensive rebound and you kick it out and hit a three, it’s really demoralizing for the other team.”
Princeton will face Penn again in the 2-3 game on Saturday afternoon, while Yale gets fourth seed Cornell. It’s the same four teams as last season, but thankfully in a different order, creating different semifinal matchups.
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Rider didn’t get a storybook ending in an 80-78 home loss to Iona, but the Broncs played the best team in the MAAC close for all 40 minutes.
More than anything, end-of-game timeout mismanagement cost Rider after the two sides went bucket for bucket for most of the second half. Dwight Murray Jr. fouled an Iona player a bit too early, with 47 seconds to go and the deficit down to two. The teams traded free throws, but then Rider let Iona eat up the clock instead of fouling down 80-78. With just four seconds’ difference between the Iona shot clock and the game clock, Rider had time for nothing more than a desperation heave that didn’t go.
Rider coach Kevin Baggett said he told his players it was on him.
“We needed to do a better job down the end,” Baggett said. “We should have fouled. I should have never let the game end like that.”
That aside, Rider shot an incredible 20-for-27 in the second half, relying as it often does on driving layups and baseline moves. All season, the Broncs have shown they have players who can make clutch 3-pointers when need be, but on Saturday it was the work of Mervin James and grad transfer guard Zahrion Blue down low that kept Rider afloat.
Saturday’s game meant nothing for Iona’s or Rider’s seeding in the MAAC tournament this week in Atlantic City, but Rick Pitino and Baggett played their guys like it was a championship game. Come this weekend, it just might be.
“If he was going to throw blow to blow, we were going to throw blow to blow,” Baggett said. “I guess they wanted to set a tone and we wanted to send a message back that this is going to be the two teams that could potentially play next week. This is what you are going to see again.”
Iona was the heavy favorite in last year’s MAAC tournament. Rider, as the No. 9 seed, proceeded to stun the Gaels. Don’t pretend Pitino and his players have forgotten that.
On the flip side of the coin, most of last year’s Rider team is still with the program, and they feel that victory last March was akin to an opening of the floodgates.
“We feel confident,” center Ajiri Ogemuno-Johnson said. “I think the guys know what’s at stake. We’ve been here, we’ve done this, we’ve broken the wall last year. Now we just have to do it again and push forward.”
Thanks for reading. We are seven days away from Selection Sunday.
Revel in the thrills of March, first from outside the Garden State:
At first glance, that might have looked like a game-winning three, but the shooter’s foot was definitely on the arc, meaning the shot merely forced overtime. And Southeast Missouri State went on to win in overtime. Brutal.
But now, let’s return to the local scene, where some congratulations are in order:
Fairleigh Dickinson is going dancing. The Knights became the first New Jersey school this year to punch their metaphorical ticket to the NCAA Tournament by beating St. Francis (PA) on Saturday night, 70-50. This was an NEC tourney semifinal, but since Merrimack won the other semifinal earlier in the day — and Merrimack is not yet eligible for an NCAA bid — the league’s bid has been awarded to FDU regardless of the outcome of Tuesday’s NEC championship game.
And the fans knew it:
“It was awesome just to have the FDU community. The students were great, the community was great,” Anderson said on a Zoom call this morning. “… When we first started playing early on in the first semester, there was nobody here, the place was empty. Which, I didn’t expect it to be crowded. We’re trying to get this thing started and we’re trying to generate some enthusiasm and you have to win, right? To go from what that was, the Manhattan game or the NJIT game and games early on, to where it’s at now where the students were here, they were standing up the whole time and they stormed the court, that’s what college basketball is all about.”
Anderson led a very successful Division II program, St. Thomas Aquinas College, before taking the FDU job. In three D2 tournaments with guards Demetre Roberts and Grant Singleton, who are now with Anderson at FDU, STAC made the Sweet 16 each time. That’s a load of veteran experience that won’t show up when you’re poring over KenPom ratings before filling out your bracket.
“I’m not saying we’re going to get to the Sweet 16 this year, that would be something,” Anderson laughed. “But there’s never been an NCAA Tournament where they haven’t won a game. We’ve won every year and won a couple games. They’re not going into this just happy to be there, and I think that translates to the rest of the guys too.”
We had to wait till this morning to find out the seeding of the Ivy League women’s tournament because every possible tiebreaker between Princeton and Columbia was exhausted down to the final option: which team had the higher NET ranking at the end of the regular season. Princeton stayed pat at No. 41. Columbia, which surprisingly needed overtime to knock off Cornell in its regular-season finale, dropped from No. 35 to No. 45. Just like that, the Tigers are back in the driver’s seat. Like the men, the women will open Ivy Madness against the Quakers.
Seton Hall absolutely steamrolled Providence. Go figure. The Friars were unbeaten at home before this week, then lost a typical shootout against a high-powered Xavier team on Wednesday. But with Seton Hall missing Kadary Richmond and Tray Jackson, it didn’t seem like this would be much of a contest. I guess it wasn’t, after all, with the Pirates shooting 62.5 percent to win 82-58. They used only seven players in their rotation before emptying the bench. I was at Princeton-Penn while this game was going on, but I’ve seen it described online as a glorified layup line.
What’s ironic is that this means absolutely nothing for Seton Hall – its Big East tournament seed was already locked in at No. 7 and it’s too little, too late to make an impact on its hopes for an at-large bid – but it helped Rutgers in a big way. How? Hall’s NET soared from No. 85 to No. 74 after this win. That reverts Rutgers’ home-court loss to the Pirates from a Quadrant 3 back to a Quadrant 2 defeat (which it had been for much of the season). At least for now, bracketeers can’t look at Rutgers’ team sheet and sniff at a 2-4 record in Quad 3. (It still would have been ideal for the Scarlet Knights to not have lost to Minnesota, to be at just two Quad 3 losses here instead, but what’s done is done.)
What a tough out for the Seton Hall women in the Big East tournament. After destroying last-place Xavier Friday, the Pirates led third-seeded Creighton 63-60 late in regulation but gave up a tying three that forced overtime. Seton Hall moved ahead 74-73… then this happened:
ESPN women’s bracket analyst Charlie Creme does not have Seton Hall on the bubble for an at-large bid, so this may be it for the Pirates (or, at least, may redirect them to another WNIT appearance). Lauren Park-Lane, who went for 36 points, eight rebounds and six assists against Creighton, is a shooting star who will get a look from the WNBA.
Two more teams whose seasons came to an end: NJIT and Monmouth. Top seed Vermont crushed NJIT 84-75 in the America East quarterfinals yesterday. Monmouth – after boat-racing Hampton 100-64 in the opening round behind 32 points from star freshman Jack Collins – lost 64-45 to Drexel in the next round.