Two for One: The key moments that shaped New Jersey’s twin Cinderellas
For those of you just joining us: a timeline of how Princeton and Fairleigh Dickinson managed to multiply the Madness.
May 3, 2022
Fairleigh Dickinson, a university of just over 11,000 undergraduates with its main campus in quiet Teaneck, N.J., hires its next men’s basketball coach, a small-school veteran named Tobin Anderson.
The transaction goes mostly unremarked upon, though NorthJersey.com does cover Anderson’s introduction two days later. Anderson quotes Nelson Mandela and speaks of “arete,” the Greek word for excellence. He promises his team will press, run and score.
This is happening while New Jersey lingers in the afterglow of the Saint Peter’s Peacocks’ history-making run to the Elite Eight. “FDU seems to fit the profile of a potential Cinderella school, though the Knights are a long way from getting back to the Big Dance, much less replicating the exploits of their neighbors to the south,” NorthJersey.com concludes.
This is also very late in college basketball’s cycle for both hiring coaches and plumbing the depths of the transfer portal for new players. Hours after Anderson is hired, he holds his first practice, getting a close look at FDU’s roster. The Knights won four games in 2021-22, leading to Greg Herenda’s firing. And Anderson sees why.
Sept. 30, 2022
Jadwin Gymnasium hums as people arrive to pay respect to a legend of the Princeton community, Pete Carril, the Hall of Fame men’s basketball coach who passed away the month prior. It is a celebration of life, scarcely somber in tone, with humorous retellings of Carril’s blunt mannerisms as well as the wisdoms he shared.
Carril’s Tigers grabbed the basketball world’s attention thanks to more than one David-meets-Goliath showdown. They came one point shy of being the first No. 16 seed to defeat a No. 1 in the 1989 NCAA Tournament, then upset defending champion UCLA in the 1996 tourney. Mitch Henderson had eight points and four steals in that ’96 win, though he’s best remembered for a photo that captured him literally jumping for joy, frozen in air, frozen in time.
Henderson is one of the last to speak to the crowd. He emphasizes Carril’s mantra of “Think, See, Do,” which Carril handed to Henderson on an index card when the latter became Princeton’s head coach in 2011.
“The ‘do’ part is the work,” Henderson says. “The goal is to become a worker and overcome something that is in you and push through it to where you can see change. This is the moment that stands out for you, and for Coach.”
Preparations are well under way for Princeton’s first season following Carril’s death. The Tigers will wear a bowtie icon on the chest of their uniform in remembrance of Carril’s signature look.
Penn is picked first in the Ivy preseason poll by a single point over Princeton; there are questions about the Tigers’ lineup, which returns Ivy Player of the Year Tosan Evbuomwan but loses three sharpshooting starters in Jaelin Llewellyn, Ethan Wright and Drew Friberg.
Behind the scenes, the new freshmen are getting acclimated to the team, with one in particular, Caden Pierce, quickly proving to his coaches he is already a starting-caliber wing.
“We had a rotation last year that everybody kind of knew,” Henderson says during Ivy League media day, “but you haven’t seen a lot of the pieces that we have that we’re excited about as a group.”
Nov. 7, 2022
Fairleigh Dickinson and Princeton lose their season openers in much different, equally heartbreaking ways.
FDU visits Loyola Chicago, a program not far removed from its own March Madness glory, and puts a scare in the Ramblers. The Knights go ahead on free throws in the final second of regulation, but Loyola’s last-ditch inbounds pass play sets up an unlikely buzzer-beater to force overtime. Loyola goes on to win 88-82. It’s a game FDU is not expected to win, but the high-scoring affair sets the table for what’s to come.
Princeton hosts the Hofstra Pride and hangs 42 on them in the first half. Starting center Keeshawn Kellman finishes 9-for-9 for 21 points after missing most of last season due to injury, but the Tigers lose a five-point lead in the final three minutes and fall 83-77.
Unlike FDU’s case, Princeton had plenty of potential to beat what was an admittedly strong Hofstra team. “In a very weird, maybe not so healthy way, this is a very good thing to happen to us,” Henderson tells the Trentonian. “That’s a good team and it would have been an incredible win. However, it exposed things we need to learn and we wouldn’t have learned unless we played in a big-game environment.”
Jan. 7, 2023
FDU has settled into its season, scoring at a high clip as Anderson promised but often yielding even more. I watch the Knights score 101 points but give up 89 in a win over Long Island, one of the worst teams in Division I. Still, it’s their 10th W of the season, and they start the Northeast Conference season 3-0.
Winning isn’t new for Anderson. He brought his previous school, St. Thomas Aquinas College, to six straight Division II tournaments, including an Elite Eight in 2017 and three straight Sweet 16s before FDU came calling. While most D1 programs promote assistants to top jobs or poach from other D1 schools, FDU found a head coach with a proven track record at D2, where no one else was looking.
Anderson, who played D3 ball at Wesleyan, was able to bring over three of his players from STAC – Demetre Roberts (5-foot-8), Grant Singleton (5-foot-9) and Sean Moore (6-foot-4). Roberts goes for a season-high 28 points against LIU and Singleton has 19 points, a season-best 11 assists, five threes and two steals. Talking to Singleton, it’s clear he knows FDU is the shortest team in Division I.
“We don’t even focus on it really,” Singleton tells me. “Like I said, we’re always gonna be the toughest team out there, whether we’re the tallest or the shortest. That’s just how (Anderson) has us going this season, since the preseason.”
Meanwhile, in Ithaca, N.Y., Princeton trails Cornell 51-44 with 13 minutes to play before clawing back. Freshman Deven Austin scores 10 of his career-high 15 points in the final 10 minutes, including the 3-pointer that puts Princeton ahead for good. His classmate, Pierce, earns his first collegiate double-double with 12 points and 13 vital rebounds, and the Tigers are the only team to start the Ivy schedule 3-0.
Pierce, Austin and fellow frosh Xaivian Lee bolster Princeton’s previously uncertain depth chart, having stepped into immediate roles in the rotation. “We really felt like there was an opportunity for us to take advantage of a time (during the pandemic) when some of these kids weren’t being recruited as heavily or evaluated in as much depth or detail as they had been in the past,” associate head coach Brett MacConnell tells me. “We really felt strongly that these guys … were underrecruited and hidden gems in a way.”
Feb. 18, 2023
Princeton gets a golden opportunity to defeat Yale at home and take sole possession of first place in the Ivy League. Yale’s leading scorer, Matt Knowling, misses the contest after hurting his ankle the night before.
Instead, the Tigers fall apart in the second half. They blow a 19-point lead thanks to 18 turnovers and a late fouling strategy that didn’t pay off. Yale forces overtime and rides the momentum to victory; the Bulldogs go on to solidify the No. 1 seed in the Ivy League tournament.
Henderson and Evbuomwan are clearly crushed after the loss. A reporter for the Daily Princetonian, who had not been seen at many, if any, previous home games, reads Henderson a prewritten question about “managing to lose” that ends with, “Many are wondering if your team has the capability to beat the resilient Bulldogs squad in the Ivy tournament. Any comment on that?”
“No,” Henderson rejoins without missing a beat.
Later, Henderson will describe the Yale loss as having “ripped us open.” It fuels them. Two weeks later, on March 4, they do to Penn what Yale had done to them: The Tigers trail by as many as 19, storm back and beat the Quakers in overtime to clinch a share of the Ivy regular-season title.
March 4, 2023
Fans storm the court inside Hackensack’s Rothman Center. FDU has beaten St. Francis (PA) in a Northeast Conference tournament semifinal, 70-50. Because the other finalist is Merrimack – ineligible for postseason events while “transitioning” to Division I per arcane NCAA bylaws – FDU has secured the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
The next morning, I join a Zoom call with Tobin Anderson offered by the athletic department. It appears I’m the only outside reporter – it’s Anderson, two others associated with FDU and me. We chat for 20 minutes. This might be the last time that media interest in FDU is relatively modest for the rest of the season.
But student interest has shot up. “When we first started playing early on in the first semester, there was nobody here, the place was empty,” Anderson says. “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?”
The coach says he had 500 or 600 texts waiting for him after beating St. Francis, and that winning a game in the NCAA Tournament is “doable.” Anderson also speaks about Moore, a junior from Columbus, Ohio who followed him from STAC to FDU and whose game had picked up in recent weeks. In the past eight games dating back to Feb. 9, Moore is averaging 11.1 ppg on 54.4% shooting.
“He’s trying to find his niche a little bit,” Anderson says. “We got on him. We actually met with him about four or five weeks ago and said, ‘Hey, you gotta stop worrying about scoring and you got to defend and rebound and do the things you can do and stop worrying about offense first.’ And to his credit, he did that, and the amazing is once he started doing that, his offense got a lot better.”
March 11-12, 2023
For the first time, Princeton hosts the Ivy League basketball tournaments, better known as Ivy Madness. The third-seeded Quakers are out for revenge and lead the Tigers by one at halftime. Early in the second, Pierce blocks Nick Spinoso’s attempted dunk and gets the ball out in transition, where Ryan Langborg sinks a go-ahead three.
Zach Martini, who dealt with a collapsed lung suffered at practice early in the season, makes three straight 3-point tries. He winds up 4-for-6 one week after going 0-for-6 from three against the same team.
Pierce’s fast-break layup puts Princeton ahead for good at 69-68. He draws an offensive foul a minute later, and classmate Lee does the same in the final 10 seconds to ensure Penn can’t chuck up a late three. Pierce walks over to Lee with his hand out, both grinning, seconds before the 77-70 victory went final.
“That moment at the end of the game between me and Xaivian, it was an emotion of… we were just proud of each other in that moment,” Pierce said. “And we’re hoping to have more of those in the future.”
It sets up a March 12 rematch against mighty Yale, a game Evbuomwan makes crystal clear the Tigers have had circled. They lost to Yale by a basket in last year’s tournament final. In fact, they’d lost 10 of their 11 games against the Bulldogs.
Pierce beats the first-half buzzer with a tough three, Evbuomwan goes for 21 points and it quickly becomes clear the Tigers won’t be denied on Pete Carril Court. They win the Ivy League title to secure their first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 2017.
This happens hours before the selection show, and the Tigers stay at Jadwin (along with the equally victorious women’s team) to see where they’re headed. Most bracket analysts working for media organizations like ESPN, The Athletic and Fox had projected Yale to be a No. 13 seed. Princeton’s NET ranking is slightly lower than Yale’s, sure, but with most of the rest of the bracket already finalized it’s assumed that the Tigers will slide onto the same line.
Instead, Princeton is given a mere No. 15 seed and a cross-country trip to Sacramento to face second-seeded Arizona. The only other team from New Jersey to make the field is Fairleigh Dickinson, placed in the First Four against Texas Southern. The winner of that play-in game will make the short Ohio drive from Dayton to Columbus to face No. 1 Purdue.
March 15, 2023
Fairleigh Dickinson eviscerates Texas Southern 84-61, the Knights’ up-tempo offense and full-court press both firing at all-time highs. It’s the second NCAA Tournament win in program history, both coming in the First Four.
The TV studio show throws it down to the FDU locker room. The Knights stand in a circle, and for the briefest moment Anderson turns left and looks down the barrel of the camera. Later on it’s debated whether he says “I don’t want Purdue to see this” or “I want Purdue to see this.” What matters is he knew the cameras were rolling, and he didn’t bail.
Anderson calls out for Kam Murrell, an assistant coach who, yes, also followed him from STAC. “What did you say to me, Kam?” Then he answers his own question.
“He said the more I watch Purdue, the more I think we can beat them. Let’s go shock the world.”
March 16, 2023
Princeton trails Arizona by 10 with 8:07 to go, but the Tigers, not necessarily known for their lockdown defense throughout the season, hold Arizona scoreless for the final 4:44. The Wildcats get skittish. Evbuomwan steals a pass off second-team All-American Azuolas Tubelis, and seven seconds later Langborg is putting it in the hoop for a lead the Tigers never relinquish.
Sacramento is such an ideal location for the game that it feels almost scripted. When Carril retired from his post at Princeton, he spent the final years of his career as an assistant coach for the Sacramento Kings of the NBA. Comparisons are inevitably drawn to Carril’s success at Princeton, to that UCLA upset, and reporters look to Henderson for comment.
“I’ve been the beneficiary of that game, along with my teammates, for a long time,” Henderson says. “But I’m the coach here. My charge, I’m very present about this, is I want that for them (the players). That’s very, very simple. They did that today. They made so many people proud and happy today.”
March 17, 2023
Moore, back in his hometown, scores the first points of the game in FDU’s showdown with Purdue. The Boilers tie it and, with barely enough time to blink, Roberts kicks a pass out to Moore to try a three. It’s good.
Soon it’s 12-9 FDU, then 19-15 FDU, and Twitter starts to buzz. The bandwagon gets crowded.
The Knights lead 32-31 at half. Their double-teams of 7-foot-4 Zach Edey only manage to contain him some of the time, but the plan is to make other guys beat them. Experienced guards are a necessity in March, the common wisdom goes, and ironically, FDU has the massive advantage in that area. Fletcher Loyer and Braden Smith of Purdue are freshmen; Roberts and Singleton are not only seniors, but seniors who have made three Division II Sweet 16s with Anderson at STAC.
But Moore, the youngest of the FDU trio, the one who was challenged to step up his defense, is the X factor. He knocks a baseline inbounds pass out of Edey’s hands and sprints up court. Singleton feeds him a pass, he steps past a charging Smith and scores to make it 58-53 with 1:26.
Loyer knocks down a corner 3, and Purdue hopes it has stemmed the tide. The Boilers – the team that spent more time than any other this season ranked No. 1, the team with the likely national player of the year – just need one stop. And somehow, they leave Moore open at the top of the key.
After the second 16-over-1 upset of all time, Jamie Erdahl asks Moore when he knew FDU could do it.
“I ain’t gonna lie,” Moore said. “I’m gonna say the Loyola Chicago game. That’s a very big team. They go to the NCAA Tournament almost every year for the past couple years. We played a very tough game that game. They got us on a buzzer, but ever since that game I knew that we could come where we at right now.”
March 18, 2023
I’m at Winberie’s Restaurant & Bar in Princeton’s famed Palmer Square, where an official watch party is being held for Princeton’s second-round game against No. 7 Missouri.
It’s a small room and a densely packed bar. Multiple generations of alumni, students and children file in. One young couple is wearing matching tiger onesie pajamas. A dad took his family here straight from little league baseball. A woman orders a drink in a distinct English accent. I listen as some patrons discuss the finer details of Princeton athletic history, and others explain to their friends what the “Final Four” is.
I’m fortunate enough to get a seat next to the most enthusiastic fan in the building, Robert. He offers me an orange rally towel, of which he has several, but between my camera and water my hands are full. He tells me he attended Ivy Madness and Princeton’s selection show watch party. Robert is neither an alumnus nor a professor, saying his only connection to the area is his Princeton address and his public library card.
I hear Robert tell his other neighbor at the bar that, for Princeton’s players, “This is the memory of a lifetime.”
As Princeton takes a lead on Missouri with little struggle, a “Let’s go Tigers” chant breaks out in Winberie’s, something I can honestly say I didn’t hear in the eight home games I covered this year. The school has a rich basketball history, but in terms of the campus culture we aren’t exactly discussing Big State U.
“Specifically the Princeton Tigers!” someone calls out, noting Missouri’s shared nickname.
What a beautiful thing it is to observe when Princeton, whose team motto is “Make Shots,” does in fact make shots. They were 4-for-25 from the arc against Arizona; Langborg made three by himself in the first six minutes against Missouri. Blake Peters tosses in five, all in the second half. Oftentimes this season, it was an either-or proposition whether the starters or the bench would make shots. The Tigers are at their most dangerous once get they both.
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Princeton also dominates the boards, and basically every other aspect of the game, to cruise past Missouri 78-63 and reach its first Sweet 16 in program history.
The picture of a younger Henderson, frozen in time, is said to be pasted everywhere around Jadwin Gym. That iconic shot might not be replaced. But now it can have some company.
Thank you for reading – both today and if you stuck with me throughout the season. To call this past week unbelievable sells the whole thing short. I’d love to go back to Thursday morning and see what the implied probability was that FDU would win one game and Princeton would win two.
Today’s story doesn’t cover every single element or key player I wanted to mention, like the contributions of Ansley Almonor and Joe Munden Jr., who stuck with FDU after a terrible 2021-22 and bought into Anderson’s program. By now you know that FDU put up another fight Sunday night before bowing out of the tournament in a 78-70 second-round defeat to Florida Atlantic. It’s nevertheless a colossal moment for the university and could leave the basketball program forever changed; I’ll have clearer thoughts to share when we’re wrapping up in April.
Much as I’d love to cover Princeton in Louisville this week, I’m thrilled to be headed to Madison Square Garden for Field Level Media for coverage of FAU, Tennessee, Kansas State and Michigan State in the East regional. An interesting assortment of teams, to be sure, with a number of fascinating stories to delve into.
Two women’s programs deserve their due before we wrap up.
Just look at this beautiful play!
The Princeton women, once again, beat a higher-seeded team in the Round of 64, this time 64-63 over NC State on Grace Stone’s game-winner. Freshman Madison St. Rose (plug for last Thursday’s newsletter in case you missed it) made two enormous plays on defense to seal it. And, once again, the Tigers put a scare into a host team in the Round of 32 before losing by single digits. Last year, it was Indiana; this time, it was Utah, 63-56. The defense was strong as usual, but Utah’s Alissa Pili was too dominant and a rough shooting night did the Tigers in. They’ll be a force again next season, even though they graduate Julia Cunningham, Maggie Connolly and Stone.
Seton Hall might make another run in the WNIT. The Pirates beat Saint Joseph’s 69-61 in the first round, with Lauren Park-Lane going for 30 and setting a program record with 19 points in the first quarter alone. They host Syracuse tonight; they reached the WNIT championship game a year ago.