26-1 regular season - Ivy League Champion - No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament - NCAA First-Round Win over UNLV
The best part about the 1998 NCAA tournament for Princeton wasn’t really what happened during the tournament itself, even though the Tigers advanced to the second round for the second time in three years. No, the best thing for the Tigers about the 1998 tournament, and the year in general, was that the Princeton basketball team had suddenly experienced role reversal in the most astonishing way.
In the winter of 1998, the Tigers were a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament, the kind of seed usually reserved for teams from the ACC or Big 10. In the winter of 1998, the Tigers were ranked in the Top 10 in the country with those same teams. In the winter of 1998, newspapers from Los Angeles to Chicago, from San Antonio to Boston, would tell Princeton’s story. And in the winter of 1998, the Tigers were certainly deserving of all of those accolades.
Still, no one was really sure where the NCAA tournament committee would seed the Tigers, despite a 26-1 regular-season record with the loss coming against a North Carolina team ranked No. 2 in the country at the time. The answer—a No. 5 seed in the East Region and a matchup with 12th-seeded UNLV in the first round.
The matchup with the Running Rebels was decided in the last nine minutes of the first half. The favored Tigers started slowly and trailed 20-15 with 8:52 to go in the half. But then came an astonishing 20-0 Princeton run over the next 8:15 that made sure the Tigers wouldn’t be one of those No. 5 seeds that seem to lose every year. The run was classic Tiger basketball—a three-pointer by Gabe Lewullis to pull the Tigers within two. A Mitch Henderson backdoor layup, from Lewullis, that tied the score two minutes later. Three straight three-pointers, from Lewullis, Brian Earl and Henderson, that gave the Tigers a nine-point lead. And a final three from Earl with 37 seconds left that, amazingly, put the Tigers ahead by 15 points.
UNLV got within five points midway through the second half but no closer than that. The final score was 69-57 in favor of Princeton, as Earl led all scorers with 21 points and Henderson scored 19, 10 more than his season average.
Two days later, Princeton met fourth-seeded Michigan State in a second-round game in Hartford that had all the makings of a classic. But it didn’t start out that way. The Tigers had four missed three-pointers and a turnover on their first five possessions and trailed 10-0 less than four minutes into the game.
Princeton, however, would respond like the championship team that it was. An Earl three-pointer finally got the Tigers on the scoreboard and ignited a 15-5 run that tied the game at 15 after Goodrich’s layup just over four minutes later. Charlie Bell’s layup with four seconds left in the first half would give the Spartans a 33-31 lead at halftime.
Unfortunately for the Tigers, Michigan State and guard Mateen Cleaves controlled the first five minutes of the second half, putting Princeton in a hole from which it would be difficult to recover. But recover the Tigers did, tying the game at 54 with 2:02 left after trailing by seven points just 1:43 earlier.
It would be Cleaves, however, who would have the final say in the outcome of the game. His three-pointer with 34 seconds remaining and the shot clock down to its final seconds gave the Spartans a five-point lead, and Michigan State held on for a 63-56 victory.