NCAA Tournament – Princeton, Furman spent 24 hours as Cinderella

NCAA Tournament – Princeton, Furman spent 24 hours as Cinderella

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  • March 18, 2023
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8:45 p.m. ET

Kyle Bonagura

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Kyle Bonagura

ESPN Staff WriterIncludes the Pac-12. Joined ESPN in 2014. Attended Washington State University.

Michael Dirocco

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Michael Dirocco

ESPN Staff WriterCovered University of Florida for 13 seasons for ESPN.com and Florida Times-Union Jacksonville University graduate Multiple APSE Awardee

March Madness is defined by two phases: early-tournament surprises and Final Four exploits. The former, perhaps more so than the latter, makes the tournament’s energy so difficult to replicate in other competitive sports.

It offers a unique dynamic as a single win can be considered the most important win in school history. And for the players involved – most of whom don’t even have the remotest possibility of a professional basketball career – the experience can be life-changing. Last but not least, it becomes a story that can be told for a lifetime.

How these stories are told will evolve over time, with the surreal nature no doubt blurring the immediate aftermath and the ensuing 24 hours.

On Thursday, No. 15 Princeton and No. 13 Furman achieved victories that will remember history – beating powerhouses Arizona and Virginia respectively – and enjoyed the quasi-celebrity status that comes with the territory in the hours since.

Mitch Henderson was now part of a Princeton upset as a player β€” above in 1996 against UCLA’s No. 4 β€” and as a coach. AP Photo/Tom Russo

PRINCETON COACH MITCH Henderson knows better than anyone how winning a single basketball game in March can pay off in a lifetime. He was part of Princeton’s famous upset from UCLA at the 1996 tournament, and even prior to this week, the intervals between memories in his daily life have remained short ever since.

“That’s what’s going to happen to these guys over time,” Henderson said. “It gets even better when you hit the sweet 16.”

At a post-game steakhouse, restaurant staff greeted the team with applause as they arrived. It’s unusual treatment for the Ivy Leaguers, and Henderson noted a subdued group.

“Do you have any appreciation for what you just did?” Henderson asked her. “You kind of shook your head, no.”

In a way, it’s a strange place. The win is among the highest-profile in all of Princeton’s sporting history, but how much is there to celebrate when an even bigger stage awaits them two days later?

“One of the best feelings of my life. I don’t say that lightly,” said second-year guard Blake Peters. “I mean, from the start of the season, the goal has always been to reach the tournament.”

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If the goal is to reach the tournament, it means that winning the tournament is beyond what the team hoped for. And that’s why Thursday’s game was so blurry for Princeton players and staff.

“It was a very surreal feeling,” said junior forward Zach Martini. β€œSo many things happen so quickly. What a great moment that was [Thursday] Night. Woke up at 6am, couldn’t go back to sleep. Just record everything.”

Henderson told ESPN he received between 400 and 500 text messages, all of which contained messages of congratulations. With a short turnaround time and a tough game against Missouri to prepare for, responding to this news presents a challenge of its own.

“I’m trying to get to them, trying to reply, but then these messages [get responses], like “Oh, we did this or that,” Henderson said. “It is great. My wife and I chatted [Thursday night]like, “Wow, that’s amazing.”

About a handful of Henderson’s teammates from the team that beat UCLA were in the stands, along with a strong contingent from Princeton that included his good friend, football coach Jesse Marsch, who is the godfather of one of Henderson’s children.

Henderson usually tries to avoid talking about his own playing experience, but it’s proved difficult because an iconic photo of him celebrating against UCLA is plastered all over the team’s arena.

“I’m glad we can take it down now and upload some new photos,” he said. “It feels a thousand times better [as a coach] just because in recruiting you get a group of people back together and you’re hopeful. We fought for our lives on Sunday just to get here.”

The 13th-seeded Furman Paladins upset Virginia 68-67 in the first round of the 2023 NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Getty Images

FURMAN COACH BOB Richey opened his eyes Friday morning and, for just a brief second, wasn’t sure if what he’d witnessed Thursday afternoon was real.

But then the feeling of watching JP Pegues hit a 3-pointer with 2.2 seconds remaining to upset Virginia and give his program its first NCAA tournament win since 1974 thundered back. He recalled that Cinderella looks pretty good in paladin purple.

“I woke up [Friday] Tomorrow I was just making sure I wasn’t at Disney and dreaming all this,” Richey said. “But it happened and we were a part of it.”

Furman’s 68-67 win at the Amway Center, the Paladins’ seventh straight win and 15th in their last 16 games, earned him a place in NCAA tournament history with Cinderella status. Add to that interview requests, social media love, calls and texts. And the paladins absorbed it all.

“Crazy,” said youngster Garrett Hien. “That’s what I thought to myself last Monday when we won that [Southern Conference tournament] Championship in Nashville was the best day of my life. And it has now been moved to two. [Thursday] is definitely #1. As a kid, you dream of being in March Madness, being on the biggest stage, and then actually being there is something special. And then winning a game and having that March moment… It’s just crazy to get clocked [history] forever.”

The calls and texts began immediately after Virginia’s Reece Beekman missed a 3-pointer on the buzzer. When Furman’s players finally returned to their locker room, they had messages from family, friends and classmates watching from the school’s Greenville, South Carolina campus.

This was fun, but scrolling through social media was even better. Hours later, when the players finally returned to the team hotel and met their family for an impromptu welcome party, they were still scrolling and showing each other tweets and posts.

😈😈 DINSSSS https://t.co/fmNvsfmAjb

β€” Walker Zimmermann (@thewalkerzim) March 16, 2023

Paladins was just doing business πŸ‘€

β€” Trevor Lawrence (@Trevorlawrencee) March 16, 2023

Former Furman soccer player Walker Zimmerman – a member of the US national team and MLS player Nashville SC – gave them praise. So did the Jacksonville Jaguars and former Clemson Tigers quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who threw the first touchdown pass of his college career to Furman in 2018.

A photo by ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith showing Furman upsetting Virginia got a lot of plaudits. Former President Barack Obama, whose USA Today group selected the Cavaliers, did not.

“Barack Obama didn’t choose us,” Hien said. “We used to joke, like, ‘Take that.'”

Some of her favorite posts were party videos of Greenville restaurants or classmates jumping into the lake in front of the school’s student center.

“So many people texted me and said, ‘I’ll get tickets for Saturday,’ and the students do the drive and buy flights,” security guard Mike Bothwell said. “It’s just really cool.”

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Furman’s JP Pegues splashes game-winning 3 after Virginia turnover

Kihei Clark is caught and flips the ball leading to JP Pegue’s 3-pointer lifting Furman to a keel over Virginia.

Players rewatched the clip of the game-winning sequence: Pegues and forward Alex Williams trap Virginia guard Kihei Clark along the baseline, Hien intercepts Clark’s desperate pass, Hien’s pass to Pegues, and Pegue’s shot a few steps past the 3-point line. How often.

“I watched that particular clip at least 50 times,” Pegues said. β€œIn the beginning I was just so numb to the fact. I could not believe it.”

In the 22 hours between the end of the game and Furman’s Friday afternoon interview session, the basketball Twitter account and the school’s official Twitter account each gained more than 1,000 followers, basketball SID Jordan Caskey said. He also handled more than 20 interview requests for Richey and Pegues. Caskey said they did as many as possible without disrupting practice and team meetings.

One of those meetings took place Thursday at 10:30 p.m. ET, and in it, Hien said Richey told the players to stop looking back at Friday and look forward to Saturday’s second-round match with San Diego State. In other words, Cinderella had to leave the ball before midnight.

“He told us, ‘Guys, I want you guys to enjoy the moment, but when we wake up tomorrow, we need to hang up the phones and put away the social media,'” Hien said. β€œWe will have this moment forever. I mean it was so well documented and what a better moment it would be if we win on Saturday [and] we’re in sweet 16?'”

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