Princeton took on the challenge of playing Navy on Veterans’ Day in the nightcap of the 2022 Veterans Classic doubleheader Friday night.
The resulting 74-73 loss for Princeton was a tale of two halves – and hopefully an instructive one for the Tigers.
Houston overwhelmed St. Joseph’s in the opener and appearing poised for another deep postseason run after its Elite Eight run a season ago.
The Tigers then faced off against the Midshipmen, which last year fielded a 21-win team that fell to Penn alum-led Colgate in the Patriot League Tournament final.
The Tigers (0-2) got off to a promising 9-2 start before the wheels came off in what was one of the worst 20-minute stretches of the Mitch Henderson era. Navy (2-0) was the superior team at both ends of the floor in the first stanza, shooting 72% from the field and canning five threes. The Tigers shot 12-for-26 but could hit only one three-pointer, which has been the staple of their offense in recent seasons. The 46 points surrendered by Princeton in the first half created a 20-point halftime deficit that appeared insurmountable as the teams left the floor.
Henderson tried numerous combinations, deploying 11 different players. Nothing worked. Senior forward Keeshawn Kellman was again a bright spot for the Tigers after his strong opening-night performance against Hofstra. Kellman establishing a strong presence in close that will be difficult to contain, especially when he and reigning Ivy Player of the Year Tosan Evbuomwan gain experience playing with each other. But when the Tigers struggle to score from beyond the arc and elsewhere, the pressure on Henderson’s bigs inside will keep build.
To say that the Tigers changed the game’s narrative in the second half would be a gross understatement.
Junior guard Matt Allocco got things going with a three-point play to open the half, igniting a marvelous 24-4 run, largely fueled by Kellman and Evbuomwan, cutting a 20-point deficit to just four, 50-46, after seven minutes of action.
Navy restored order at that point, mounting its own 14-4 run over a seven-minute stretch. Kellman continued his incredible play underneath, spurring another 8-0 Tigers run. It was clear the Tigers were not going away quietly.
Henderson threw a defensive curve at the Middies, deploying his troops in a 1-3-1 zone for much of the second half. The move confused and cooled off the hot shooting of the home team.
Kellman once again sparked a Tigers run at the 4:35 mark, registering seven points in two minutes, capped by a long three from rookie forward Caden Pierce. The Navy lead had shrunk to two with 2:23 to go.
Navy held on, however, restoring the lead to six. An Allocco three with 51 seconds left pulled Princeton within three, 73-70.
A Navy free throw followed by another Allocco bomb made it a one-point game with three ticks on the clock.
The Tigers were forced to foul, but the rattled Midshipmen missed both. Allocco managed to get off another long range shot as time expired. Many observers, including the CBS Sports Network broadcast team, believed Allocco was fouled. But the no-call ended the game with Navy on the winning end of a 74-73 score.
Tiger fans are hoping the team that showed up for the second half will be the one on the floor going forward. Defensively, the Tigers were superb, holding Navy to just 28 second-half tallies. On offense, the Tigers hit five of 10 shots from three-point range. Allocco posted career highs of 19 points and four treys. Kellman led the team with 20 points. Evbuomwan was “held” to 15 points, adding nine rebounds.
Henderson’s team will stay in the Old Line State for a Monday evening contest against UMBC, hoping to notch its first victory.