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Princeton stands tall despite end of March Madness dream

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The heartbreak will linger. How could it not when you are denied history and when you believed you could remind the world that an Ivy League basketball team can crash a Final Four party?

When the pain relents — and it will — the sun will come up and the Princeton Tigers will hold their heads high and burst with pride for authoring a Basketball 101 thesis they won’t forget.

Every team professes to be a brotherhood, but this Princeton team truly is one. But just because you are a Dream Team doesn’t mean you get to enjoy a dream ending.

And, alas, Creighton shattered that dream with an 86-75 NCAA Tournament South Region semifinal victory at the KFC Yum! Center. The defeat cost Princeton more than a puncher’s chance against No. 5 seed San Diego State, which upset the region’s top seed, Alabama, 71-64.

Sophomore guard Blake Peters was choked with emotion and struggled to get the words out while seated in a quiet Princeton locker room … after the sea of orange had given them a farewell tribute and the Tigers applauded up at them.

“It’s been a great run,” Peters began. “This senior class is amazing. … I’m gonna miss them so much. They set the standard when we come in next year, it’s Ivy League championship-or-bust, NCAA Tournament-or-bust.” Sniffle.

“It’s tough but … walk out here with my head held high [sniffle] …

“Not too bad for a bunch of nerds.”

Ryan Langborg reacts after losing to the Creighton Bluejays in the Sweet 16 round.
Getty Images

To a man, the Tigers believed that they were Destiny’s Darlings, a brotherhood that reminded former Princeton great Bill Bradley of his 1970 champion Knicks for the way they shared the ball and hit the open man and left their egos at Pete Carril’s old backdoor.

To March Madness America, Princeton was another fairytale romance following in the footsteps of Saint Peter’s a year ago and FDU this year, a 15th seed that believed Anything Is Possible and had T-shirts manufactured to remind everyone that anything truly is.

Could it be that these were more than proverbial eggheads immersed in classes such as Introduction to Metaphysics and Epistemology or Multivariable Calculus?

One more win and they would have been dining again at Vincenzo’s … one more win and they would have stood 40 minutes from history, 40 minutes from the Final Four 58 years after Bradley led his Tigers there.

Somewhere Up There, Pete Carril is crying. But when the tears dry, applauding.

“Obviously I’m overwhelmed with sadness,” senior Keeshawn Kellman said. “We fought really hard but we just couldn’t get it done. At the same time, looking back at it, this was just an amazing run. I wouldn’t trade it for anything else in the world being able to make it to this big stage with all my brothers, guys that I love, that I’ve been around for four years.

[Sniffle] “It’s the best thing in the world.

“Best thing in my life ever.”

The Tigers so badly wanted another magical March moment, the kind their coach, Mitch Henderson, enjoyed when he assisted Gabe Lewullis on the backdoor layup that eliminated defending champion UCLA 43-41 in 1996 in Carril’s final season as head coach.

Tosan Evbuomwan moves the ball against Creighton forward Arthur Kaluma in the first half of the Sweet 16 matchup.

“Wasn’t that just perfect?” Henderson said after that win. “A backdoor pass to win the game. A backdoor!”

No back door to the Elite Eight.

“Gotta be elite to be one of the last eight teams standing,” Peters said.

Senior 6-foot-8 forward Tosan Evbuomwan (24 points, nine assists, six rebounds) and sharpshooting Ryan Langborg (11-for-17, 26 points) kept the Tigers in the hunt. But the Bluejays killed them in transition and 7-1 Ryan Kalkbrenner (22 points) played Goliath to Princeton’s David when Baylor Scheierman (21 points) wasn’t launching daggers.

“Obviously definitely disappointed that the season’s coming to an end,” freshman Caden Pierce said, “but also at the same time, I’m really proud of all that this group has accomplished.”

When Kellman forced Kalkbrenner out of bounds toward the end of the first half and flexed, the Princeton crowd erupted. Then Peters drilled a 3-pointer and Princeton had a 37-33 lead. And the festive orange-clad fans were screaming “Let’s Go Tigers” when they weren’t screaming “Dee-fense … Dee-fense.”

Alas, magic carpet rides can disappear at any given maddening March moment.

Creighton stormed back to seize a 52-45 lead in the first two minutes of the second half when Kalkbrenner converted a 3-point play and soon it was 56-45.

Henderson called timeout. There was 15:48 left in Princeton’s Anything Is Possible Dream. It didn’t work.

Princeton coach Mitch Anderson

“They were the better team today,” Matt Allocco said.

It was 68-52 Creighton with 12:19 left in Princeton’s Anything Is Possible dream, when the Tigers turned up the heat on defense. Creighton buckled. A 3-pointer by Evbuomwan cut the deficit to 68-60. Still time … 7:48 left.

The Princeton crowd pleaded and exhorted.

The Tigers couldn’t get closer than seven.

“It just seems like we touched so many people,” Peters said.

Yes, they did. And they touched one another. From sea to shining sea. As far away as Newcastle, England, Evbuomwan’s home.

“We’re going to have an even greater bond, and it’s going to be special,” Evbuomwan said. “I’m sure it will last all of our lifetimes.”

Henderson has been the conductor of a basketball symphony that made sweet March music.

“Keep your heads up,” he told the players. “You did something amazing for the university.”

The night the music stopped won’t change any of it.