How Princeton and Furman spent 24 hours as Cinderella

8 months ago 8

8:45 PM ET

  • Kyle Bonagura


    Kyle Bonagura

    ESPN Staff Writer

    • Covers the Pac-12.
    • Joined ESPN in 2014.
    • Attended Washington State University.
  • Michael DiRocco


    Michael DiRocco

    ESPN Staff Writer

    • Covered University of Florida for 13 seasons for and Florida Times-Union
    • Graduate of Jacksonville University
    • Multiple APSE award winner

March Madness is defined by two phases: Early-tournament upsets and Final Four heroics. The former, perhaps more than the latter, is what makes the tournament's energy so hard to replicate in other sporting competitions.

It presents a unique dynamic in that a single win can qualify as the most important win in school history. And for the players involved -- most of whom don't have even a remote possibility of a professional basketball career -- the experience can be life-altering. If nothing else, it becomes a story to tell for a lifetime.

How those stories are told will evolve over time, the surreal nature undoubtedly blurring the immediate aftermath and following 24 hours.

On Thursday, No. 15-seeded Princeton and No. 13-seeded Furman delivered wins that history will remember -- knocking off powerhouses Arizona and Virginia, respectively -- and have enjoyed the quasi-celebrity status that comes with the territory in the hours since.

PRINCETON COACH MITCH Henderson knows better than anyone how winning a single basketball game in March can pay dividends for a lifetime. He was part of Princeton's famous upset of UCLA in the 1996 tournament and, even before this week, the intervals between reminders in his daily life have remained short ever since.

"This will happen to these guys over time, too," Henderson said. "It will be even better if you make the Sweet 16."

At a steakhouse after the game, the restaurant staff greeted the team with applause upon their arrival. It's unusual treatment for the Ivy Leaguers, and Henderson noticed a subdued group.

"Do you guy have any appreciation for what you just did?" Henderson asked them. "They kind of shook their head no."

In some ways, it's a strange spot to be. The win is among the most high-profile in Princeton's entire athletic history, but how much celebrating should occur when an even bigger stage awaits two days later?

"One of the best feelings of my life. I don't say that lightly," sophomore guard Blake Peters said. "I mean, from the beginning of the season, the goal was always to get to the tournament."

When the goal is to reach the tournament, there's an implication that winning in the tournament is beyond what the team was hoping for. And that's why Thursday's game for the Princeton players and staff has been such a blur.

"It was a very surreal feeling," junior forward Zach Martini said. "So many things happening so fast. How big of a moment that was [Thursday] night. Up at, like, 6 a.m. Couldn't go back to sleep. Just taking everything in."

Henderson told ESPN he got somewhere between 400 and 500 text messages, all conveying congratulatory messages. With a short turnaround and a difficult game against Missouri to prepare for, responding to those messages represents its own unique challenge.

"I'm trying to get to them, trying to respond, but then those messages [get responses], like 'Oh, we were doing this or this," Henderson said. "It's awesome. My wife and I were talking [Thursday night], like, 'Wow, this is unbelievable."

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

Usually, Henderson tries to avoid talking about his own playing experience, but it has proven to be 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 put some new photos up," he said. "It feels a million times better [as a coach] just because in recruiting, again, you're bringing a group of guys together and you're hopeful. We were fighting for our life on Sunday just to get here."

FURMAN COACH BOB Richey opened his eyes Friday morning, and for just a quick second wasn't sure if what he experienced on Thursday afternoon was real.

But then the feeling of watching JP Pegues hit a 3-pointer with 2.2 seconds to play to upset Virginia and give his program its first NCAA tournament victory since 1974 came thundering back. He remembered Cinderella looks pretty good in Paladin purple.

"I woke up [Friday] morning just making sure I wasn't at Disney and dreaming all of this," Richey said. "But it did happen, and we were a part of it."

Furman's 68-67 victory at the Amway Center, the Paladins' seventh in a row and 15th in their past 16 games, guaranteed it a place in NCAA tournament history with Cinderella status. With that comes interview requests, social media love, calls and texts. And the Paladins have soaked it all in.

"Crazy," junior forward Garrett Hien said. "I thought that last Monday when we won the [Southern Conference tournament] championship in Nashville was the best day of my life. And it's been moved to two now. [Thursday] is definitely No. 1. As a kid you dream of being at March Madness, being on the biggest stage, and then to actually be in it is something. And then to win a game and have this March moment ... It's just crazy to be stamped in [history] forever."

The calls and texts started immediately after Virginia's Reece Beekman missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer. When Furman's players finally got back into their locker room they had messages from family, friends and classmates who were watching from the school's Greenville, South Carolina, campus.

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


— Walker Zimmerman (@thewalkerzim) March 16, 2023

Paladins just took care of business 👀

— Trevor Lawrence (@Trevorlawrencee) March 16, 2023

Former Furman soccer player Walker Zimmerman -- a member of the U.S. National Team and MLS's Nashville SC -- gave them a shoutout. So did Jacksonville Jaguars and former Clemson Tigers quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who threw the first touchdown pass of his college career against Furman in 2018.

A photo of ESPN's Stephen A. Smith's bracket showing his pick of Furman upsetting Virginia got a lot of love. Former President Barack Obama, whose bracket in USA Today picked the Cavaliers, did not.

"Barack Obama didn't pick us," Hien said. "We were making jokes, like, 'Take that.'"

Some of their favorite posts were celebration videos from Greenville restaurants, or of fellow students taking a dive into the lake outside the school's student center.

"So many people have texted me and said, 'I'm getting tickets to come down Saturday,' and students are making the drive, buying flights," guard Mike Bothwell said. "It's just really cool."



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

Kihei Clark gets trapped and turns the ball over, leading to JP Pegues 3-pointer that lifts Furman to the upset over Virginia.

Players have re-watched the clip of the game-deciding sequence: Pegues and forward Alex Williams trapping Virginia guard Kihei Clark along the baseline, Hien intercepting Clark's desperation pass, Hien's pass to Pegues, and Pegues' shot a couple steps from behind the 3-point line. Like, a lot of times.

"It's been at least 50 times I've watched that specific clip," Pegues said. "I was just so numb to the fact at first. I couldn't believe it."

In the 22 hours between the end of the game and Furman's interview session on Friday afternoon, the school's basketball twitter account and official twitter account have each gained more than 1,000 followers, basketball SID Jordan Caskey said. He also dealt with more than 20 interview requests for Richey and Pegues. Caskey said they've done as many as they could without interfering with practice and team meetings.

One of those meetings happened at 10:30 p.m. ET Thursday, and in it Hien said Richey told the players they had to quit looking back on Friday and start looking ahead to Saturday's second-round matchup with San Diego State. In other words, Cinderella had to leave the ball before midnight.

"He told us, 'Guys, I want you to enjoy the moment, but when we wake up tomorrow, we need to put the phones down, put social media away,'" Hien said. "We're going to have this moment forever. I mean, it's been documented so well, and, and what a better moment would it be when we win Saturday [and] we're in the Sweet 16?'"

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