SACRAMENTO – Blake Peters, a sophomore guard for Princeton, plays classical Spanish guitar, speaks fluent Mandarin and, as it turns out, is badass when his Tigers get a chance to advance to the Round of 16.
After playing just two minutes in the first half, Peters came off the bench to set Missouri on fire Saturday, swishing five 3-pointers to stem any momentum Missouri seemed to muster in the NCAA men’s tournament.
Peters finished the season with 17 points, teammate Ryan Langborg with 22 points, and the Tigers didn’t have to work until the final horn of the game, unlike their amazing run off second-placed Arizona on Thursday.
Instead, as Princeton put the finishing touches to his stunning performance, the chant from the Tigers’ cheering section at the Golden 1 Center was loud and clear: “Sweet 16! Sweet 16!”
“Blake Peters has been shooting off the bench for us for weeks,” said Princeton coach Mitch Henderson. “They’re a very, very confident group.” He added, “They just grit their teeth and do it.”
From the underdogs at No. 15 to the bullies on the block in two days, Princeton dominated No. 7 Missouri for most of the 40 minutes played in their second-round game. The school advances to the round of 16 for the first time since 1967.
The rare opportunity was realized through dazzling shooting, especially compared to the struggles Princeton overcame against Arizona. The Tigers tripled their 3-point performance from that game — 12 total against Missouri compared to four against Arizona — and played with composure and presence throughout the game.
Princeton outrebounded (44-30) and outshot (44 percent to 41 percent) Missouri. Princeton adjusted their 3-point total from the Arizona game well within first-half limitations.
Their consistent backbone was again Tosan Evbuomwan, the elder striker from Newcastle, England. Though he finished with a seemingly mediocre stat line, many of his passes prepared the passes that went for assists, illustrating his fluidity and presence.
“Tosan dies, you won’t see that in Princeton for 50 years,” Henderson said. He added: “The first week of training – and Ryan and Blake, no offense – but it was like a bright, blinding light from heaven.”
It was Princeton’s associate head coach Brett MacConnell who traveled to England to make first contact with Evbuomwan and that story has become a legend at school.
As he approached the small gym where he would first see Evbuomwan, MacConnell sidestepped a parked car and knocked off the rear-view mirror of his rental car. Then Evbuomwan’s team got blown out and he had a night off.
“To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much after this performance,” said Evbuomwan. “But yes, it worked. And I’m here and I’ve had a great time for the last four years.”
The Princeton players, who wore bow ties on their uniforms in honor of the late Hall of Fame coach Pete Carril, whose spirit the Tigers still carry, led by one point by 14 points in the first half, relieving Missouri’s pressure the entire square continuously.
Then, in the second half, with Missouri threatening, Peters took over. His first four 3-pointers of the second half helped Princeton extend their lead to 62-45.
Peters, who is in his second season at Princeton, hasn’t seen much court time as a freshman. Looking to improve and hope for more playing time, he went to Israel last summer and helped the US team win a gold medal at the Maccabiah Games.
By the time he was done with Missouri, the other Tigers looked discouraged, and Princeton’s cheering section began to feel the goal.
Even the huge overhead scoreboard signaling the end of Arkansas’ anger at Kansas during a time-out gave Missouri very little respite. Although the Missouri cheering section gave Kansas’ loss a standing ovation, it returned to reality as the time-out ended at the Golden 1 Arena, and soon the Missouri cheering section was back with little more to celebrate.
The Princeton players were of course very celebratory.
“When we came to this tournament, that’s what we all wanted,” Langborg said. “We are not finished yet. Hopefully we still have a few games left.”
The next comes next week against the winner of Sunday’s game Creighton-Baylor. Princeton has won six straight games and hasn’t lost since February 18. And on their trips home, Arizona and Missouri understand why.