The situation was familiar for Princeton University -- playing a college basketball powerhouse as a No. 13 seed with Sydney Johnson at the helm. This time, the Tigers came up just short.
Princeton wasn’t able to match its tournament magic from 15 years ago, when Johnson -- now the school’s coach -- was the leading scorer in the 13th-seeded Tigers’ 43-41 win against defending champion UCLA. Kentucky, the fourth seed in the East Regional, avoided its biggest upset in 51 trips to the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament.
“Princeton and Kentucky, from my vantage point, are two of the best basketball programs that we’ve seen in college basketball,” Johnson, one of 10 coaches in this year’s field who is at his alma mater, said during a news conference. “I wanted to demand from our players that we live up to that, and I think we did that.”
Princeton put a scare into the seven-time national champions before falling to 13-28 in its Ivy League-record 24 NCAA tournament appearances.
It was the latest in a series of NCAA near misses for the Tigers, who lost to top-seeded Georgetown 50-49 as a 16th seed in 1989. The following year, Princeton fell 68-64 against an Arkansas team that reached the Final Four. In 1991, the Tigers were beaten by Villanova 50-48.
“We prepared this whole week to beat these guys and our team believed that we could do it,” said senior forward Kareem Maddox, who scored 12 points off the bench.
Princeton’s last NCAA tournament victory was in 1998, when it beat the University of Nevada-Las Vegas as a fifth seed. The Tigers are 0-3 in the tournament since then.
“It was just trying to find that sweet spot where we were ready to perform,” said Johnson, who broke down in tears at his postgame news conference. “We were excited about these bright lights and all the hype that surrounds us, but we were focused on the task at hand and what we had to do.”
“They came out firing a little bit,” said senior guard Dan Mavraides. “I don’t know what it was for us, maybe another big stage, a little jitters or something. But I knew we would settle in.”
The Tigers, who have improved their record in each of Johnson’s four seasons as coach, led in the second half 44-39 before Kentucky went on a 14-4 scoring run.
Princeton trailed 57-53 with two minutes left before tying the game on jump shots by Maddox and Mavraides, who led the Tigers with 14 points.
After a timeout, Kentucky put the ball in the hands of Knight, a freshman who was the Wildcats’ leading scorer this season at 17.5 points a game. Knight had been held scoreless and missed all seven of his shots before driving to the basket and hitting the game-winner.
The lowest-ranked team Kentucky has lost to since seedings were introduced was No. 11 Middle Tennessee in 1982. The Wildcats advance to face West Virginia tomorrow.
“I knew they were going to fight for their lives,” Knight said in the Kentucky locker room. “They are a great team and they came out and battled us to the end.”
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