SACRAMENTO, Calif. — It’s an iconic March Madness photo: Princeton player Mitch Henderson floating in midair, arms raised in triumph after he and the Tigers upset UCLA in the first round of the 1996 NCAA Tournament.
Fast forward to this past Thursday. Henderson, now Princeton’s head coach, found himself part of a similar comeback upset when his team, seeded 15th in the South Region, defeated heavily favored second-seed Arizona in the first round in Sacramento, Calif.
How does winning as a coach compare with the emotional overload captured in that photo?
“It feels a million times better,” Henderson said.
But he said the scale of the team’s accomplishment hasn’t yet sunk in with his players.
At the team dinner following the big win, “the guys were all kind of just subdued,” he said.
So he asked them: “ ‘Do you have any appreciation for what you just did?’ They kind of just shook their heads no.”
It’s a perspective that comes with time, Henderson said.
“As a player you’re the beneficiary of so much, you don’t realize it,” he said. “You think the world’s right in front of you and you’ve got it all figured out. But you get into coaching and you realize how hard those moments are to replicate. I’m just so proud that they can have and draw on this moment for the rest of their lives.”
Some of the players are savoring the win while also trying to temper their emotions before the next round presents a Tigers-vs.-Tigers matchup against Missouri on Saturday night.
The win was “one the best feelings of my life, and I don’t say that lightly,” guard Blake Peters said. “It was a David-vs.-Goliath matchup.”
Forward Zach Martini had a similar reaction.
“It was a very surreal feeling, so many things happening so fast,” Martini said. “I was up at 6 a.m. [Friday], couldn’t go back to sleep.”
But players said Henderson hasn’t specifically drawn on his victory over UCLA (the 1996 Tigers lost their next game, to Mississippi State, featuring longtime NBA star Erick Dampier) to prepare them for their next round.
“He doesn’t like to talk about that game a lot,” forward Tosan Evbuomwan said. “I think he tries to stay very focused on us and our team right now.”
Being more than 2,800 miles away from the Princeton campus presents some challenges. If the members of the Princeton band looked a little young, it’s because they were high school fill-ins, brought in from West Campus High School in Sacramento.
Despite the distance, the Princeton fans who made the trek to watch the team play were rewarded with an amazing performance. And they all wanted a picture with Henderson.
“It seems like they were in hysterics, just kind of crawling all over each other,” he said.
The players admitted that some of the energy that helped propel them during the game against Arizona came from “agnostics” in the stands — fans of other teams in the tournament. Everyone loves an underdog, and the Golden 1 Center crowd really got behind Princeton. Henderson made getting “the crowd involved in the game right away” one of his three keys for the Tigers’ game on Saturday.
He also told his players to “enjoy the moment again” and to “take very seriously and respectfully the strengths of your opponent. I thought we were able to that in round one, hopefully we’ll do that in round two.”
Henderson is also proud that his alma mater’s commitment to both academics and athletics is being highlighted on a national stage.
“Parents entrust us with their kids,” he said. “They know that they’re getting a first-class hoops situation and an education that you’d die for. My parents did with Princeton, and it changed my life forever. That’s what this place does. It’s an education and life-changing experience. … I’ve got five seniors and they’re all writing a thesis right now. And it’s due in two weeks — and there’s no extensions.”
Perhaps 27 years from now, people will still be asking these Princeton players about their win over Arizona and their 2023 run in the tournament. At the very least, the Tigers’ home arena might get some new artwork that doesn’t feature their coach’s 1996 victory.
“That photo’s all over Jadwin [Gymnasium],” Henderson said. “I’m glad we can take it down now and put some new photos up.”
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