Every time you might pause for a second and think you've got this year's Princeton team figured out, something like tonight happens.
The Tigers built a 16-2 lead in the first nine minutes despite only one bucket from leading scorer Ian Hummer and undeterred by a pair of rough patches at the end of the first half and the middle of the second were able to record a convincing road result at Kent State.
Contributions were numerous up and down the Princeton roster, from Clay Wilson's three first half three pointers off the bench to Denton Koon's 5-5 shooting the final 20 minutes including a pair of emphatic dunks to T.J. Bray's steady team-best 15 points and six assists versus one turnover. That doesn't even include Brendan Connolly continuing to perform nicely in the post with 11.
Also surprising was a 33-27 advantage on the glass for the Tigers, who shot 11-20 from the field on either side of intermission.
“I thought the rebounding was great and the execution was great too,” said Princeton head coach Mitch Henderson.
The Golden Flashes' star senior Chris Evans did score 18 points but he needed 16 shots to get there, was 0-3 from three point range and had five turnovers.
Postgame audio and the rest of this recap can be found after the jump.
Postgame audio - Coach Mitch Henderson, Denton Koon & T.J. Bray:
The Tigers scored on their opening possession as Will Barrett met a Bray pass at the top of the arc for three and never trailed the rest of the way.
Playing man to man defense to start, Kent State had trouble finding a lineup that worked while Henderson’s substitutions nearly-uniformly led to success.
Bryson Pope was wild on a drive and Bray was fouled on his rebound. Bray was also able to penetrate the lane easily and dish to Connolly off the glass.
An easy Pope putback of a similarly chaotic Evans shot got the Golden Flashes on the board but it would be their last basket for an 8:20 stretch.
Bray was able to keep control with his body and fling in a runner with his right hand for a 7-2 count. As KSU continued to attack without conscience, Evans was well off and it was Connolly’s turn to get fouled rebounding.
Hummer’s drive decoyed the defense and Bray stepped into a three at the top of the key. Kent State called time.
When play resumed the Golden Flashes started to pressure full court but it didn’t help them at all offensively. At the 12:45 mark Bray went to his left and Mack Darrow stepped outside for a three off the right side. Evans forced me to have to consider additional synonyms for “wild” over Connolly in the post and at the opposite end Wilson may or may not have beaten the shot clock from the right corner with a pump three that was not reviewed so the score stood 16-2.
A third out of control drive and a third Kent State foul as Princeton rebounded brought play to a stop. The Golden Flashes switched their defensive plan once more as they aggressively trapped the wings and ran to double the post. It had nothing to do with Koon getting called for an illegal screen that sent him to the bench with two personals.
Finally with 10:13 showing a drive and dish by Randal Holt to Melvin Tabb doubled Kent State’s total.
Wilson was off for three and so was Holt but a terrific offensive rebound from Evans resulted in a foul on Barrett and one of two free throws converted.
KSU’s trapping defense morphed into a zone, which Barrett drove right into the teeth of for an easy charging violation, his second personal.
Bray off the left wing made it 19-5 with 8:29 showing.
Holt answered out of the right pocket and when Bray avoided a charge but could not finish a drive, Pope scored inside and was fouled by freshman Hans Brase from behind, converting the free throw.
Bray got on the floor for a loose ball, kept possession with Princeton by passing to Hummer and Hummer led a two-on-one with Brase, a bounce pass to the right leading to Brase being fouled. Brase split his attempts and the Tigers were up 20-11.
Hummer tipped a Kent State pass out of bounds and subsequently got his mitts on the feed into play, starting a two-on-one from Connolly to Hummer for the latter’s first bucket of the contest.
A posting Connolly fed Brase who drew defenders and split them with a pass back to Connolly for a lay-in and a 13 point Princeton advantage.
Kent State had no choice but to return to playing man. The Tigers had chances to extend their lead and the Golden Flashes also possessed opportunities to close the gap.
Chris Clement, who I felt played a very nice, controlled game off the bench despite going scoreless over 17 minutes, was off on a lefty flip with the shot clock at five.
Evans left side drive did not fall and Hummer’s explosion to his right into the lane was ruined by a swipe from a Kent State defender that bounced the ball off of Hummer’s right leg.
With the shot clock running low, a lot of dribbling from Connolly ended in the senior center getting into the lane, spinning right and drawing a foul with two seconds to spare. Connolly split a pair, but it was a play that stood out to Coach Henderson after the game.
Foolishly, Brase swiped at the rebound of Connolly’s miss from behind and stopped the clock so Evans could traipse 80 feet to the other end for a pair of gratis free throws, both of which were converted.
Hummer’s skip to Wilson saw a three go in, out and back in for a game-high 28-13 edge.
An athletic finish by Kris Brewer sailing to his left and hesitating in the air over Connolly as Wilson reached in started a three point play. Under pressure a rare miscue as Hummer’s pass to Connolly could not be saved on the sideline near midcourt gave Kent State the ball again and an up/under move from Evans drew his team within 10.
One of Hummer’s four first half turnovers - clobbered in the backcourt for a steal - was negated by Evans carrying the ball as soon as he picked it up.
Brewer stopped for a jumper and a 28-20 score but momentum returned to Princeton with a posting Bray in sync with Wilson setting up the sophomore sharpshooter on the wing.
Leading by 11 and getting the possession once more following Hummer turning a briefly open reverse for Darren Goodson into another miss by closing strong, Princeton called time to set up a potential two-for-one opportunity. There was 1:02 left before intermission.
Darrow was fouled going to his right but the front end of his one-and-one sailed long. It seemed to not matter when Bray once more on the floor collected a steal and started a three-on-one. Darrow got cut off and when he started to pull around to bring the ball out was picked clean from behind by Evans.
Decent ball movement set up Holt on the left wing for three as time expired and what probably should have been a double digit lead was instead 31-23.
Still, after the horrors of Wagner it was a quality response. Princeton shot 11-20 (55.0%) and superb 7-12 from three point range (58.3%) and the only issue was the 2-5 mark on free throws (40.0%). While Hummer only had two points he never seemed to be forcing things.
Kent State made 8-25 attempts (32.0%), 2-7 from three (28.6%) and 5-6 at the line (83.3%). Coming in averaging 14.9 offensive rebounds a game, the Golden Flashes had three across the opening 20 minutes.
Evans was 1-8 to this point and KSU looked to get him the ball on a designed play to start the second half, Holt finding him posting Hummer deep inside off the glass.
A near steal for Kent State vanished as Barrett with a long stride shuffled a pass to Koon in the lane for a bucket. Two different Golden Flashes players fell to the floor trying to rebound a Holt try and Bray led a four-on-two the other way, with Hummer on the wing eventually recognizing Connolly inside for a basket and after a foul from Pope, a free throw.
Kent State clearly was trying to jump start their tempo on both sides of the basketball and Princeton did a decent job of reacting, even if the action became rather ragged.
A magnificent three from Holt on the left side over an astonished Koon turned it to 36-28.
Bray at Pope got a whistle and then two made three throws.
Kellon Thomas drove quickly around Barrett’s block try and Bray was called for a charge well after making a pass into the far corner.
Brewer drifted to the top for a three that sailed long. Hummer had a horrific telegraphed pass from just inside half court to Bray which was picked off easily but Hummer’s hustle chasing caused Brewer’s reverse to come up well short.
Bray tried to split two defenders, lost the ball and was tied up. Possession stayed with Princeton but Koon on a drive was also tied up – this time by Thomas and Kent State had the ball again.
Evans missed inside, had a gift of an offensive rebound come back to him somehow and then blew a two-handed lay-in.
Quality basketball depreciating by the second, Hummer still not force anything and made the right move lobbing a pass to Connolly who was fouled. One free throw and it was a 39-30 game.
It wasn’t just Kent State missing at the rim. Hummer got around his man but reached an awkward angle in the air and could not score by the tin. Earvin Morris, Jr. went around Brase for a layup.
This isn’t hockey, so Brase can’t get a secondary assist on his diagonal cut which drew two defenders and allowed Hummer to set up Bray alone outside for an important three.
Connolly stood his ground versus Goodson on a drive and took the ball away. Connolly drew a trio of defenders in the post and there was Clement stepping into a three which could have truly deflated Kent State’s hopes, but the shot was off.
Goodson could not convert a spinning jumper over Darrow and Hummer went strong with his left hand over Pope for a 44-32 count. Brewer chipped off two with a right baseline pull-up jumper.
Darrow to a cutting Brase was nearly a beautiful backdoor but Morris, Jr. swatted the finish from behind. Brase also let a defensive rebound slip out of his hands with no defender around him for a turnover. It was part of an ersatz power play for the Golden Flashes who had four chances during :55 with possession and came away scoreless as finally Hummer tipped the ball free from Holt on a third offensive rebound.
As Kent State pressured full court, Connolly saved a turnover by coming up to meet the ball and Hummer was fouled on a spinning jump hook, splitting a pair.
The home team closed within seven on a Evans coast to coast drive but the extension of their defense is what eventually proved Kent State’s ultimate undoing.
Koon got between two men for a lefty scoop. A lefty drive from Brewer around a screen spun out to Darrow and while Wilson could not pop from deep Evans’ entry pass missed the post completely and rolled out of bounds.
Princeton attacked the press they were facing by going right at it, Koon bouncing a feed to Darrow for a layup and after Thomas got past Clement for a left baseline jumper, Koon caught Kent State napping with a cut that bisected the lane as Barrett met him with an one-handed pass for the two hand slam.
“We came into a time out and coach just said ‘stick with your stuff.’ We got a couple easy baskets right away not trying to get too fancy,” Bray said. “Getting back to basics was big for us.”
The Tigers also narrowly avoided a ten second violation when Henderson called time out 9/10 of the way there with the ball nowhere near the dividing line.
Evans benefitted from an extended continuation call after being bumped by Koon but could not convert at the line.
Bray got into the lane and found Darrow for a three that looked on-line but was well short. The next time down the floor it was Darrow again, this time from deep up top. Koon slid in between two defenders for an offensive board and Darrow from the top of the arc thanked him with a backdoor to Koon cutting from the perimeter that Koon dunked loudly with his left hand in the face of a closing KSU defender. It was a thrilling way to make the score 53-42 with 5:23 to go.
The advantage stood 12 a minute later as Connolly drew more defenders and Koon slipped in undetected to a friendly spot for a lay-in.
“As they began to pressure up, as long as we were strong with the ball we had open looks,” Koon stated.
Note to self: Check if Denton Koon is equipped with a cloaking device.
Kent State called time and had one final push left in them. Evans went to his left at Hummer and scored. Hummer’s mini-lob to Connolly was not held securely – Connolly’s only miss of the evening - and Evans won two free throws driving at Bray sliding baseline.
A missed technical foul by the officiating crew occurred as Wilson inbounding threw a pass to Bray on the other side of the baseline not yet in play which was slapped away by a Kent State defender. That’s a technical in the rule book but the officials opted not to call it. Very odd and nearly a huge decision as when Hummer and Wilson were on a two-on-one over the pressure Wilson lost the ball and Evans scored as Koon fouled him. The free throw was no good, Connolly rebounded and the score dwindled to 55-49.
Here’s how you close a game out:
1. Your coach trusts his team enough to not call a panicked time out when a player is trapped on the sideline, realizing that if the defense can be split, Hummer is going to have Bray feed Connolly alone for a two-handed dunk.
2. Get a touch of good fortune when Thomas’ solo teardrop in the lane doesn’t splash down.
3. Convert your free throws, as Bray did when fouled.
4. After a flurry of missed layups and loose balls, have faith in a senior center who had struggled until recently as Hummer did not hesitate to set up his classmate Darrow on the left wing for a game-icing three with 1:12 remaining.
Kent State trailed 62-49 and they were on the canvas for good.
In the context of the Wagner contest or with the game existing in a bubble, Henderson liked the way his team performed on Saturday.
“I think this is a very good win for us,” he said. “I’m really proud of the way they played. T.J. was terrific – he was able to handle so much pressure.”
“We’ve been talking about finishing games, but really it was about playing with a little skip in your step. We did that tonight.”
Seven games in it still remains unclear what sort of performance Princeton is going to set forth in their respective outings until the ball is tipped. But perhaps like we have seen each of the prior two seasons this win at Kent State will prove a significant turning point where the Tigers stop reacting and responding and simply figure it out with a skip in their step.
-Princeton shot 22-40 (55.0%), 9-19 from three (47.4%) and 9-15 at the line (60.0%).
-Bray was 3-3 from deep and 4-4 on free throws. Since starting 1-19 downtown he’s made 6-12 attempts. He also had four steals.
-Hummer had seven turnovers.
-Kent State converted 18-53 attempts (34.0%), 3-11 outside the arc (27.3%) and 11-16 with the action stopped (68.8%).
-The Tigers are in the driver’s seat to win the MAC East title and will go for a 3-0 mark (and the non-existent trophy that goes with that victory) on December 30 at Akron.