Princeton was able to overcome a horrendous first half shooting performance, carried to victory on the broad shoulders of sophomore center Zach Finley. Finley scored 18 of his career-high 22 points in the game's final twenty minutes as the Tigers held off visiting Central Connecticut State 59-57. Joe Seymore tallied 14 points on four three point shots for the Blue Devils.
The season opener was the first win in the nascent head coaching career of new Princeton head man Sydney Johnson. Johnson's former boss, Georgetown head coach John Thompson III was in attendance on Sunday at Jadwin Gym, heading up from Washington to surprise his former assistant.
Several of the questions unanswered during the secrecy of Princeton's preseason practices were revealed throughout the afternoon:
Would a new coaching staff have the Tigers warm up in the same manner they had for the past two decades? No. Princeton came out onto the court thirty minutes before tip-off, returning to the locker room at the twelve minute mark and then emerging onto the floor for the final seven minutes before the national anthem. The drills were predominately the same, but the structure was not.
Would Lincoln Gunn cut his mane of blonde hair before the season started? No. Gunn's long locks make former Tiger Max Schafer look like Pete Hegseth. Kareem Maddox donned an orange headband, but Gunn did not.
Who would be the starting five for the Tigers? Marcus Schroeder, Lincoln Gunn, Zach Finley, Kyle Koncz and Noah Savage. Finley jumped center and lost the opening tip.
Would Princeton play man-to-man or zone defense? Both. The Tigers switched defenses repeatedly in their debut. Princeton went to a 2-3 zone on their first defensive possession, which ended when Ken Horton converted an open three point shot in the far corner. A few possessions later the Tigers were now in man-to-man. Princeton changed their looks enough to keep Central Connecticut off-balance, even showing a certain defense out of a time out before suddenly changing to a different formation as the ball came into play.
Who would score the first basket of the season? Marcus Schroeder, who drove to his left and scored while drawing a foul that put Princeton down 3-2 with 17:35 on the clock.
Would Marcus Schroeder play all 40 minutes? No. Schroeder headed to the bench for the first time with 15:05 to go, replaced by senior Matt Sargeant.
Who would be the first man off the bench? Matt Sargeant. Sargeant, Alex Okafor, Kareem Maddox and Kevin Steuerer all saw time in the first half. Maddox replaced Zach Finley six minutes in after the Princeton center picked up his second personal foul. Finley would not return until after halftime.
Would Princeton's senior co-captains lead the Tigers? Not in the first half. Starting together for the first time since the 2005-06 season, Kyle Koncz and Noah Savage combined to go an unbelievable 0-14 from the floor on the first half. Neither player scored from the field until 9:39 remained in regulation.
Who would convert Princeton's first three point shot? Sargeant. The senior guard used a high screen and connected at the top of the arc to put Princeton in front 9-8 after the Tigers had missed their first four three point shots. It was the Tigers' only triple of the first half. Princeton would go 1-14 from distance in the opening frame and shot just 19% from the field.
The Tigers had an 13-10 advantage with under ten minutes left in the first half after Noah Savage was fouled grabbing an offensive rebound and made both of his free throws. Princeton would score just three more points before the break, as the Blue Devils went on a 12-2 run to close the half. Tristan Blackwood's spinning layup kissed high off the glass and put the Tigers down 24-14. With under thirty seconds to go, Lincoln Gunn read a passing lane for a steal and drove the length of the court for a layup that ended the half's scoring. Matt Sargeant stole the ball with similarly shrewd anticipation and time running out. Kyle Koncz drove to the top of the arc and floated up a desperation shot that bounced twice off the rim as time expired.
When asked what he said to the his team in the locker room at halftime, Coach Johnson said "I told them to believe." Johnson felt like his team had been a little timid and full of first game jitters. Johnson stressed to the media that he did not want his team to run from challenges. In the second half, Princeton answered that call.
The Tigers found something that worked and went to it as often as they could. That something was Zach Finley. On their first possession Princeton fed Finley in the low post, who swooped up for a left hook that put the Tigers down six. Lincoln Gunn overloaded the Central Connecticut zone and fed a bounce pass to Finley for a layup. CCSU players said after the game that Finley was "big and wide...[we had] trouble getting around him." Following a Blue Devils turnover, Finley took an entry pass on the block and kicked the ball back outside to Marcus Schroeder, who connected from behind the line and made it a one point game. A Lincoln Gunn free throw tied the score with 17:25 left. Gunn banked home a short jumper in the paint to put the Tigers in front for the first time since the 7:37 mark of the first half. It was a 10-0 Princeton run.
Matt Sargeant's second three point basket beat the shot clock buzzer by a tick and gave Princeton a lead they would not relinquish. The Tigers were in front 37-34 with 11:52 to go. Tamir Johnson's jumper pulled Central Connecticut back within one but at the other end of the court Finley closed out his man and turned to lay in an entry feed from Gunn that caused a member of the Blue Devils' bench to scream "oh come on!" to no one in particular.
The Princeton lead reached seven when Koncz swung the ball to Sargeant for his third three of the day. Lefty Joe Seymore sandwiched two high arcing three point shots around a line drive trey by Koncz that brought the visitors to a 50-46 deficit at the 5:28 mark.
Finley threw a nifty bounce pass out of the post to a cutting Koncz for Princeton's first back door of the season. The Tigers looked to be in control with under four minutes to go when Noah Savage connected on his only field goal in nine attempts, using a deep screen to size up the jumper. This would be Princeton's final basket of the game.
Zach Finley made his first 10 field goal attempts, mixing ambidextrous hooks with finishes in traffic and one floater from slightly further out. Finley's first miss came with 2:44 to go and Princeton up four. Finley grabbed the offensive rebound on his only errant shot and made both free throws when fouled going up for the putback, pushing the lead back to six. Finley showed a different form at the line than what he displayed last season. It is a small sample size, but should lead to better numbers than last season's atrocious .375 free throw shooting clip.
Matt Sargeant fouled Blackwood driving baseline with just over a minute left and Blackwood's free throws made the score 59-55 Tigers. Kevin Steuerer, in for a fouled-out Noah Savage, gave the ball right back to Central Connecticut, committing a palming violation against pressure. Blackwood's three point shot was too strong, but a crashing Seymore calmly banked the put-back home on the run to make it a two point game.
The Tigers called time with :36.7 on the clock, as Johnson subbed Marcus Schroeder in for Steuerer. We'll never know what play Princeton was looking to run, as Lincoln Gunn threw the inbounds pass into traffic for a turnover and the Blue Devils had the ball and a chance to win or tie.
Central Connecticut did not call time, and went into their offense early. Blackwood sprung open on the wing for a three point shot that was rebounded by teammate Tamir Johnson. With time running out Joe Seymore turned the corner and tried to convert a floater that fell to the floor in a scrum as time expired. A jubilant Matt Sargeant roared as he ran out to half court, meeting several other Tigers as they poured off the bench to celebrate a victory over a 2007 NCAA Tournament team in the season's exciting opener.
-Princeton was 17-29 in the second half from the field (58.6%).
-The Tigers and Blue Devils each grabbed 33 rebounds.
-Eight Tigers played at least 15 minutes.
-A moment of silence was held before tipoff for former Princeton head coaches Butch van Breda Kolff and Jake McCandless. van Breda Kolff passed away in August while McCandless died on Thursday. Princeton will wear a "VBK" patch on the right side of their jerseys this season in honor of van Breda Kolff.
-Both Michael Strittmatter and Pawel Buczak did not suit up for Princeton. Strittmatter has a hamstring injury and Buczak is recovering from a broken foot. Each player may be available on Wednesday night against Iona.
This lack of depth in the interior made it all the more important that Finley stay out of foul trouble. Kyle Koncz was forced to play the center position in the first half on Sunday. Princeton prospered when Finley was available and struggled on Sunday when he was not. The rest of the Tigers combined to shoot 12-44 from the field (27.2%).
-Princeton hosts Iona on Wednesday night, their final test before heading to Hawaii for the EA Sports Maui Invitational.