Princeton pulled an NCAA Tournament stunner on Thursday, when the No. 15 seed Tigers upset No. 2 seed Arizona 59-55 in the first round. It marks the third straight NCAA Tournament in which a No. 15 seed has upset a No. 2 seed after Saint Peter’s beat Kentucky in 2022 and Oral Roberts beat Ohio State in 2021 and the 11th time in tournament history.
Arizona guard Kerr Kriisa had a chance to tie the game with five seconds left on a 3-point look from the left wing, but it bounced off, which allowed the Tigers to clinch the game at the free-throw line.
Tosan Evbuomwan led Princeton with 15 points. Azuolas Tubelis led Arizona with 22 points, and Oumar Ballo contributed 13 points and 12 rebounds. However, the Wildcats were outscored 11-2 in second-chance points. With the loss, Arizona is now 6-2 all-time as a No. 2 seed in first-round games and the only program to lose twice against a No. 15 seed in the first-round.
It marks the Tigers’ first NCAA Tournament win since 1998, when coach Mitch Henderson, 47, was a player on the team. With the win, the Ivy League champions advance to play No. 7 seed Missouri in the second round on Saturday. Arizona opened up a 31-22 edge late in the first half before Princeton closed the half on an 8-0 run. Then, in the second half, the Wildcats led 47-35 with just under 12 minutes to play before Princeton rallied again.
No. 15s over No. 2s
After Princeton’s victory vs. Arizona, No. 2 seeds are 11-139 vs. No. 15 seeds all-time in the NCAA Tournament.
|1991||Richmond def. Syracuse||73-69|
|1993||Santa Clara def. Arizona||64-61|
|1997||Coppin State def. South Carolina||78-65|
|2001||Hampton def. Iowa State||58-57|
|2012||Lehigh def. Duke||75-70|
|2012||Norfolk State def. Missouri||86-84|
|2013||Florida Gulf Coast def. Georgetown||78-68|
|2016||Middle Tennessee def. Michigan State||90-81|
|2021||Oral Roberts def. Ohio State||75-72|
|2022||Saint Peter’s def. Kentucky||85-79|
|2023||Princeton def. Arizona||59-55|
If you’re perusing the box score for some flukey explanation of how Princeton won, good luck. The Tigers made only 4 of 25 attempts from 3-point range and shot just five free throws. Evbuomwan led Princeton with just 15 points, and it’s not as though Arizona had a star player out due to injury or foul trouble.
Princeton matched Arizona in every facet and won this game with its defense, limiting one of the nation’s most high-powered offenses to a season-low with 55 points. Arizona’s final tally of three made 3-pointers also marked a season-low as the Wildcats went 0 for 6 from deep in the second half.
The Tigers entered as a respectable No. 137 in KenPom.com‘s defensive efficiency metric but were by no means regarded as a defensive juggernaut. But they stepped up on the big stage against a team that entered ranked No. 4 in offensive efficiency.
Arizona’s defining trait
Arizona exceeded expectations for much of the season after losing three players who were selected in the 2022 NBA Draft from last season’s Sweet 16 squad. But the fatal trait of these Wildcats was how prone they were to upsets.
Well before Princeton ever appeared on the screen next to Arizona’s name on Selection Sunday, the Wildcats lost some head-scratchers. First came a 15-point loss at Utah on Dec. 1. While road losses against mediocre conference opponents are likely to happen over the course of a long season, the margin of defeat stood out for a team coming off a Maui Invitational title.
Similarly, a 13-point loss at home to Washington State and a 19-point loss at Oregon in January offered confounding representations of Arizona’s ability to alternate between excellent and surprisingly poor levels of play. An 88-79 road loss against Stanford on Feb. 11 was another example.
The Wildcats won two of three against UCLA, knocked off Tennessee and won 19 games by double-digit margins this season. But their bad games were really bad, and their poorest version made an untimely appearance on Thursday to mark a disappointing end to an otherwise solid beginning to second-year coach Tommy Lloyd’s tenure.