‘Four-minute games’: How Princeton keeps coming back when you least expect
Princeton’s buzzer-beater was the capper of a triumphant Saturday for New Jersey’s top teams.
PRINCETON – Matt Allocco slid through the locker room entrance doors at Jadwin Gym to meet with reporters. To recap: On his 21st birthday, he earned his first collegiate start in place of the injured Jaelin Llewellyn, scored 14 points and threw up a long three to beat the buzzer and steal Princeton an improbable victory, 72-70 over Cornell.
I asked him if it had been the best birthday he’s ever had.
“Uh, now it is!” Allocco said.
The most impressive thing about Princeton’s 18-point comeback is that it’s almost no longer impressive. There’s a pattern emerging in the Tigers’ 2021-22 season that doesn’t take much sleuthing to uncover.
Nov. 14: Princeton trails Minnesota by as many as 11 points in the Asheville Championship final. Llewellyn makes game-tying layups in the final seconds of both the second half and the first overtime before Minnesota pulls away to win 87-80.
Dec. 1: Princeton trails Hofstra by 16 at halftime on Hofstra’s court. The Tigers piece together a huge run in the final 10 minutes to draw within one before losing 81-77.
Dec. 4: Princeton trails Drexel by 11 late in the first half. Tosan Evbuomwan and Ryan Langborg help the Tigers stay neck and neck throughout the second half, Langborg hits a 3-pointer to force overtime and Evbuomwan converts the game-winner in the final seconds for an 81-79 victory.
Jan. 7: Princeton trails Columbia by 12 at halftime, at home, in the Ivy League opener. Columbia, for what it’s worth, was picked last in the Ivy preseason poll. Princeton storms back and outscores the Lions 51-24 in the second half for an 84-69 win.
Even though it ultimately lost to Minnesota and Hofstra, Princeton never lay down. Something clicked in the Drexel game, and the Tigers haven’t lost since, stringing together seven consecutive wins and establishing early control of the Ivy League.
Princeton play-by-play announcer Derek Jones pointed out this amazing stat: The Tigers played 80 minutes of basketball against Columbia and Cornell, led for only 12:46 – including only 45 seconds on Saturday – and went 2-0.
“They (Cornell) were better than us. We stole that game,” coach Mitch Henderson said in the most matter-of-fact tone. Because of course they did. No use in denying it.
Henderson said he knew the Tigers weren’t out of the game once they cut the deficit to three.
“Actually at 64-61 with 4 ½ (minutes) left or whatever it was, I said, ‘Look, we’re gonna play a four-minute game,’” Henderson said. “Of course, they come right down the court and score.”
But if that four-minute game quote sounds familiar, that’s because it was the second straight day Henderson had to employ the tactic. “We didn’t start the game with the intensity needed to execute,” Henderson said after Friday’s win over Columbia. “We just needed to break this thing into four-minute games and the first four minutes we were down two.”
By compartmentalizing and choosing to see the whole contest in tiny chunks, no deficit is too big to overcome, at least not for Princeton.
For the mini-game starting at the 16-minute media timeout of the second half, the Tigers moved to a 1-3-1 zone that succeeded in cooling down some of Cornell’s shooters. Drew Friberg, one of several Tigers capable of draining treys at any moment, was able to make two, and soon Princeton had the deficit down to 11 – sorry, I mean it won the four-minute game by seven.
“We said, ‘A lot of time left. Let’s keep after it,’” Allocco said. “We were playing four-minute games, so every media timeout is four minutes. So just keep chipping away. Four-minute games. And we did, and we made some big plays, hit some big shots and got stops when we needed them.
“We stay in the moment,” he added. “We feel we’re never out of it. I would like to start games a little better, you know. A couple in a row like that and we’ve escaped them. But it’s a special group. We stay together, stay in the moment and things like that happen when you can do that.”
That’s what I keep coming back to: Imagine what Princeton could look like if it put together a complete 40-minute effort against a good opponent. Imagine the ceiling if the Tigers made more of their signature threes in the first 10 minutes of games to avoid falling into holes.
But Henderson and his players know better than to keep starting slow forever. And there may be a game, perhaps the Ivy League championship game or something even later in March, where Princeton will be outplayed for 25 or 30 minutes. The Tigers will know, then, what to do to fight back.
“I think it could” help late in the year, Allocco told me. “Coach has been saying, the league is going to come down to a few possessions.”
Lots more still to get to, so let’s clean the glass:
Sticking with Princeton first, Henderson said Llewellyn injured his hamstring against Columbia. He had to be carried off the court Friday, but it might not turn out as bad as it looked: Henderson said the staff was hopeful it would be a day-to-day sort of setback, noting that Llewellyn had “made improvements” from Friday to Saturday.
No. 24 Seton Hall 90, Connecticut 87 (overtime). The epitome of a Big East battle, and unfortunately the only game out of three Saturday that I could not make it to in person. What a showcase of the Pirates’ depth, even if my use of the word there carries a touch of irony given they’re still only using an eight-man rotation. Not only did Kadary Richmond score a career-high 27 points off the bench, it was his first time leading Hall in scoring all year. He added three steals as he continues to show his prowess on defense, which is usually better than his offense. Hall was killed on the boards 40-25 and still won.
So Seton Hall followed an 0-2 week with a 2-0 week, and that should keep it inside the Top 25 yet again when today’s new poll is released. Ever since their COVID pause, the Pirates have felt to me like a train accelerating along at full bore with the wheels starting to wiggle loose a bit. They had a “complete” win over Butler last week, but overall they have some imperfections and inconsistencies without much time to fix them, as Kevin Willard alluded to when bemoaning the DePaul game being rescheduled for an off week he wanted to use for practice and rest.
Rutgers 93, Nebraska 65. I’ll write something longer on the Scarlet Knights in the next edition coming out Wednesday, following their visit to Penn State on Tuesday night. But this was out of hand fast, with Rutgers playing like last year’s team that knew its strengths and created good shots for itself. Don’t look now – I’m begging you, don’t, you’ll be stunned, just trust me – but with a 3-1 Big Ten record, Rutgers is fifth in the conference standings, ahead of Purdue, Iowa and a couple of teams we all expected to be better than they are. The Knights have the second-longest winning streak in the league (five). The Dec. 3 humiliation to Illinois feels like a lifetime ago.
A little shine for Aiden Terry, who was promoted to full scholarship status before the Nebraska game, got in against the Huskers in garbage time and managed to rack up three rebounds and an assist in two minutes. “He’s a great teammate,” Pikiell said. “He works his tail off every day as part of our scout team. He does an unbelievable job, comes from a great family, does all the great things we want here at Rutgers and in the program.”
Almost as an afterthought, NJIT won Saturday and Rider won Sunday to bring New Jersey programs to a perfect 5-0 on the weekend. Outstanding stuff.
Monmouth is tracking toward coming out of its COVID pause and returning to action Friday, when they play Saint Peter’s in Jersey City. Meanwhile, the MAAC postponed three of its games: The Hawks will host their showdown with Iona Jan. 18, welcome Marist on Feb. 8 and Siena on Feb. 22. Those are all Tuesdays, which will be the conference’s preferred day for rescheduled games going forward; it breaks up the schedule nicely since most of the MAAC games are on Fridays and Sundays.