Aiming for its first Sweet 16 appearance since 2009, Missouri men’s basketball faced off against one of this season’s Cinderellas in Sacramento on Saturday.
The No. 15 seeded Princeton Tigers embodied that underdog status, dominating the first half en route to a 78-63 victory, punching a ticket to their first Sweet 16 since the field expanded in 1985.
Following in the footsteps of Oral Roberts and Saint Peters, Princeton became the latest No. 15 seed to make the Sweet 16. The Tigers also became just the third Ivy League program since the field expanded to make it to the vaunted second weekend.
Princeton roared out to a 14-point lead the first half, quieting the normally dominant duo of senior forward Kobe Brown and graduate guard D’Moi Hodge. After scoring 42 points in their opening round victory over No. 10 Utah State, that pair scored only four points in the opening half.
Hodge did not tally his first points until the 1:42 minute of the first half, sparking a 7-0 run for Missouri to close the first half. That rally cut the Tigers’ deficit in half, as Mizzou entered the halftime locker room down by seven points.
Ryan Landborg led Princeton’s offensive output early, scoring 15 of his team-high 22 points in the first half. The senior guard scored 11 of the Tigers’ first 13 points, showcasing his 3-point abilities with a trio of long-distance jumpers.
Landborg’s efforts epitomized a commanding first half for Princeton, which controlled the paint and asserted its will on the glass. The Ivy League champions out-rebounded Missouri 21-to-14 in the opening half before finishing with a +14 margin on the glass.
Freshman forward Caden Pierce excelled in that department, grabbing nine rebounds in the first half. Pierce finished with 16 rebounds and eight points, proving to be an efficient sidekick to Tosan Evbuomwam.
Evbuomwam, Princeton’s leading scorer on the season, added yet another layer onto the Tigers’ all-around effort. The senior forward recorded nine points, nine rebounds and added five assists.
Missouri trimmed its deficit to five points at the beginning of the second half, but Princeton caught fire from behind the arc to seal the victory.
Sophomore guard Blake Peters drilled five 3-pointers in the second half, accounting for his career-high 17 points.
Despite the offensive production, the story of the game was Princeton’s defense.
The 15-seeded Tigers held Missouri’s offense, which averages 79.5 points per game, to just 26 points in the first half. Mizzou shot just 41% from the field with a 6-of-22 mark on 3-pointers.
Unlike several of its games this season, Missouri’s defense struggled to pick up the slack for its offensive production.
The seven-seeded Tigers forced just nine turnovers, allowed Princeton to shoot 12-of-33 from behind the arc and gave up 19 second-chance points.
After scoring only three second-chance points in the first half, Princeton capitalized on its 11 second-half offensive rebounds with 16 points. The upset-minded Tigers found production all over the floor in that second-half effort.
Six different Princeton players notched points in the second half, and the Tigers outscored Missouri 20-8 in bench points, even with a limited supporting cast.
Noah Carter and DeAndre Gholston led Missouri in its losing effort, scoring 14 and 15 points, respectively. Carter scored the Tigers’ first seven points, while Gholston provided a spark in the second half with 15 points.
Brown, who possibly played his final game in a Tigers’ uniform, scored 10 of his 12 points in the second half, several of which were too late.
Hodge, a usual spark plug for the Missouri offense, was not his usual self after being knocked out of the game for a short period falling a hard fall. He finished with only two points and zero 3-pointers in 31 minutes of action.
Princeton will next play the winner of No. 3 Baylor and No. 6 Creighton in Louisville, Kentucky, on either Thursday or Friday in the Sweet 16.
Meanwhile, the second offseason under Missouri coach Dennis Gates will begin promptly. Gates led the Tigers to an unlikely Round of 32 appearance and a 25-10 record, an accomplishment that he will look to build upon in the coming years.