Upset city!: No. 15 Princeton ousts No. 2 Arizona in NCAA Tournament shocker in Sacramento

Paul Kitagaki Jr./

Somewhere, Pete Carril is working over a stale cigar, nodding with pride and approval.

Carril was the beloved Hall of Fame coach who led the Princeton Tigers for 30 seasons and presided over some epic NCAA Tournament efforts before finishing his career as a sage and wise Sacramento Kings assistant, big on backdoor cuts and the belief that anything can happen.

Carril died in August at 92, but his spirit lives on, and his legacy was on the minds of Princeton players and coaches Thursday afternoon.

A darkhorse again and always, 15th-seeded Princeton stunned No. 2-seed Arizona 59-55 in a first-round NCAA Tournament thriller at Golden 1 Center, where only Wildcats fans and their band were pulling for the Pac-12 program with Final Four aspirations. Everyone else was pulling for an upset because it’s the upsets that make this March Madness.

Tosan Evbuomwan had 15 points and seven rebounds in muscling around the bigger and taller Wildcats. Caden Pierce had two late free throws to stun Arizona, nearly 27 years to the day that Carril led 13th-seeded Princeton past defending champion UCLA in a tournament opener. Princeton (22-9) scored the final nine points and held Arizona scoreless in the final 4:43.

This is Princeton’s first tournament triumph since eliminating UNLV in 1998. Princeton coach Mitch Henderson was on that team, and he was a member of the storied 1996 Tigers team, scoring eight points in the win over UCLA. He rejoiced in this one, too, in a job he never expected to have, saying Thursday: “I pinch myself every day.”

His players are pinching themselves as well, but there wasn’t a single player or coach in Tigers stripes who didn’t expect this outcome. Why make the trip from New Jersey otherwise, right?

It’s the third consecutive year that a No. 15 seed has topped a No. 2 seed in an opener and the 11th time it has happened in tournament history. Arizona is the lone program to have suffered such an upset twice, losing to Santa Clara and guard Steve Nash in 1993. Entering Thursday, No. 15 seeds were 10-138 in the Round of 64 matchups.

“Pretty surreal feeling,” Tigers guard Matt Allocco said. “To beat a great team like that on this stage is a pretty special feeling. But also I can’t say I’m surprised. This team has been so good all year, so gritty. On paper, it’s going to look like a big upset. But we believe in each other and we think we’re a really good team. When we’re at our best, then I think we can beat anybody in the country.”

Princeton players wear a patch that honors Carril.

“He would be very proud of the group,” Henderson said of his mentor. “He wouldn’t want any attention to be brought other than what these guys did. They played to win. We knew we had to keep the game low possessions.”

Henderson added: “There’s going to be some comparisons, I’m sure, to coach Carril. I want to be really clear that this group did this. That was a really long time ago (beating UCLA in 1996). This group did something special for its university, for the fans, for the former players, and for one another. They just came together and did it. It’s a heck of a win and I’m so proud of them.”

Princeton will play Missouri in the second round of the South Region on Saturday at Golden 1. Missouri beat Utah State 76-65 earlier on Thursday.

The Tigers will have Sacramento’s support as a Cinderella story with a prominent backer in Kings general manager Monte McNair, who played football at Princeton before graduating with a computer science degree in 2006.

McNair even proposed lighting the Kings’ famed victory beam for the Tigers.

“Do we have an orange beam?” McNair tweeted. “Asking for a friend.”