SACRAMENTO — Blake Peters, a sophomore guard for Princeton, plays Spanish classical guitar, speaks fluent Mandarin and, it turns out, is tough as nails when his Tigers have a chance to advance to the round of 16.
After playing only two minutes of the first half, Peters came off the bench to torch Missouri on Saturday, swishing five 3-pointers to stem every bit of momentum Missouri appeared to muster in the N.C.A.A. men’s tournament.
Peters finished with a season-high 17 points, teammate Ryan Langborg had a game-high 22, and the Tigers did not have to work to the game’s final horn, unlike during their astounding unseating of second-seeded Arizona on Thursday.
Instead, as Princeton put the final flourishes on its commanding performance, the chant coming from the Tigers’ cheering section in Golden 1 Center was loud and clear: “Sweet 16! Sweet 16!”
“Blake Peters has been making shots coming off the bench for us for weeks,” Princeton Coach Mitch Henderson said. “This is a very, very confident group.” He added: “They just grit their teeth and do it.”
From underdogs seeded 15th to the bullies on the block in two days, Princeton dominated No. 7 seed 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 made real by dazzling shooting, especially in comparison to the struggles Princeton overcame against Arizona. The Tigers tripled their 3-point output from that game — making 12 total against Missouri, compared with four against Arizona — and played with poise and presence throughout the game.
Princeton outrebounded (44-30) and outshot (44 percent to 41 percent) Missouri. Princeton matched its 3-point total from the Arizona game well within the confines of the first half.
Their steady backbone again was Tosan Evbuomwan, the senior forward from Newcastle, England. Though he finished with what seemed in the box score like a mediocre statistical line, many of his passes set up the passes that did go for assists, exemplifying his fluidity and presence.
“Tosan’s passing, you won’t see that again at Princeton for 50 years,” Henderson said. He added: “The first week of practice — and Ryan and Blake, no offense — but it was like a brilliant, blinding light from heaven.”
It was the Princeton associate head coach Brett MacConnell who traveled to England to make the initial contact with Evbuomwan, and that story has cemented itself into legend at the school.
While closing in on the small gym where he would see Evbuomwan for the first time, MacConnell sideswiped a parked car and knocked off the rearview mirror of his rental car. Then, Evbuomwan’s team got blown out and he had an off night.
“I wasn’t expecting much, honestly, after that performance,” Evbuomwan said. “But yeah, things worked out. And I’m here and I’ve had a great time these past four years.”
Princeton’s players, wearing bow-tie patches on their uniforms to honor the late Hall of Fame Coach Pete Carril, whose spirit the Tigers still carry, opened a 14-point lead at one point in the first half and continually blunted Missouri’s full-court pressure.
Then, in the second half, just when Missouri threatened, Peters took over. His first four 3-pointers of the second half helped Princeton push its lead to 62-45.
Peters, who is in his second season at Princeton, did not see much court time as a freshman. Accordingly, looking to improve and hoping for more playing time, he went to Israel last summer and helped the U.S. team win a gold medal at the Maccabiah Games.
By the time he was finished with Missouri, the other Tigers looked dispirited, and the Princeton cheering section began sensing the finish.
Even the giant overhead scoreboard that showed the end of Arkansas’ upset of Kansas during a timeout provided only a very brief respite for Missouri. Though the Missouri cheering section gave Kansas’ loss a standing ovation, it was back to reality as soon as the timeout in Golden 1 Arena ended, and soon enough, Missouri’s cheering section again was seated with little more to celebrate.
The Princeton players, of course, were plenty festive.
“Coming into this tournament, this is what we all wanted,” Langborg said. “We’re not done yet. We’ve got a bunch of games left, hopefully.”
The next one will arrive next week, against the winner of Sunday’s Creighton-Baylor game. Princeton has won six in a row and hasn’t lost since Feb. 18. And on their trips home, Arizona and Missouri understand why.
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