Princeton coach writes NCAA tournament history again

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — This is an iconic photo from March Madness: Princeton player Mitch Henderson floating through the air, arms raised in triumph after he and the Tigers upset UCLA in the first round of the 1996 NCAA Tournament .

Fast forward to last Thursday. Henderson, now head coach of Princeton, found himself in a similar upset comeback when his team, seeded 15th in the South Region, beat heavily favored second-seeded Arizona in the first round in Sacramento. , in California.

How does winning as a coach compare to the emotional overload captured in this photo?

“It’s a million times better,” Henderson said.

But he said the scale of the team’s achievements had yet to be realized by his players.

At the team dinner following the big win, “the guys were all pretty subdued,” he said.

So he asked them, “’Do you have any appreciation for what you’ve just done?’ They just shook their heads no.

It’s a prospect that comes with time, Henderson said.

Princeton coach Mitch Henderson celebrates with Matt Allocco after their upset win over second seeded Arizona.

“As a player you benefit from so many things, you don’t realize it,” he said. “You think the world is right in front of you and you have it all figured out. But you jump into coaching and realize how hard those times are to replicate. I’m so proud that they can have and enjoy this moment for the rest of their lives.

Some of the players are savoring the victory while trying to temper their emotions before the next round features a Tigers vs. Tigers matchup against Missouri on Saturday night.

The win was “one of the best feelings of my life, and I don’t say that lightly,” said goalkeeper Blake Peters. “It was a David versus Goliath match.”

Forward Zach Martini had a similar reaction.

“It was a very surreal feeling, so many things were happening so fast,” Martini said. “I got up at 6 o’clock in the morning [Friday]impossible to go back to sleep.

But players said Henderson didn’t specifically capitalize on his win over UCLA (the 1996 Tigers lost their next game to Mississippi State, featuring longtime NBA star Erick Dampier ) to prepare them for their next turn.

“He doesn’t like to talk about this game much,” said striker Tosan Evbuomwan. “I think he’s trying to stay very focused on us and our team at the moment.”

Being over 2,800 miles from the Princeton campus presents some challenges. If the Princeton band members looked a little young, it’s because they were high school substitutes, brought in from West Campus High School in Sacramento.

Despite the distance, Princeton fans who made the trip to see the team play were rewarded with an incredible performance. And they all wanted a picture with Henderson.

Mitch Henderson leaps into the air after Princeton beat UCLA in the 1996 NCAA Tournament.
Mitch Henderson leaps into the air after Princeton beat UCLA in the 1996 NCAA Tournament.

“It looks like they were hysterical, just crawling on each other,” he said.

The players admitted that part of the energy that propelled them during the game against Arizona came from the “agnostics” in the stands – the fans of the other teams in the tournament. Everyone loves an underdog, and the Golden 1 Center crowd really got Princeton backed. Henderson made “immediate involvement of the crowd in the game” one of his three keys to the Tigers’ game on Saturday.

He also told his players to “seize the moment again” and to “take your opponent’s strengths very seriously and with respect. I thought we were able to do that in the first round, hopefully we will.” will do in the second round.

Henderson is also proud that his alma mater’s commitment to academics and athletics is highlighted on the national stage.

“Parents entrust their children to us,” he says. “They know they’re getting a first-class hoops situation and an education you’d die for. My parents did it with Princeton, and it changed my life forever. That’s what this place does. It is a life-changing education and experience. … I have five seniors and they are all writing a thesis at the moment. And it’s due in two weeks – and there’s no extension.

Maybe 27 years from now, people will still be asking these Princeton players questions about their win over Arizona and their 2023 run in the tournament. At the very least, the Tigers’ home arena could get some new artwork that doesn’t feature their coach’s 1996 win.

“This picture is everywhere Jadwin [Gymnasium]”, Henderson said. “I’m glad we can take it down now and put some new pictures in.”


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