Princeton rallies to top LaSalle, earn berth in Division I state semifinals


Princeton poses with its regional championship trophy after winning the Cincinnati Regional. (Photo by Steve Helwagen)

Princeton capped a frenetic finish Saturday in the Division I regional final at the Cintas Center with a 64-60 win over Cincinnati LaSalle. The victory punches the Vikings first ticket to the state tournament since 1972. It’s just the school’s second state appearance ever.

For much of the Division I boys basketball Cincinnati regional final staged Saturday morning it appeared that Jordon, not Jordan, was going to steal the show.

Cincinnati Princeton shooting guard Jordan Sibert, a 6-4 junior who is already committed to Ohio State, entered the Cintas Center as the star attraction, but Cincinnati LaSalle point guard Jordon Crawford turned in a standout third quarter and had his team in position for victory and a trip to the state final four.

Princeton, which has just lost one game all season, trailed 44-43 heading into the fourth period and Sibert was having a relatively quiet performance. Then the heat turned up and so did Sibert’s playmaking ability as he led the Vikings (24-1) to a come-from-behind 64-60 win that sent them dancing with visions of Columbus in their heads.

Sibert came through on both ends of the floor throughout the final eight minutes with must-have free throws, important defensive rebounds and clutch baskets including a huge three in the midst of a frantic finish that tied the score at 60 with 50 seconds to play.

“If you’ve got a big-time player you’ve got to put him into a spot where he can make a big-time play,” Princeton coach Josh Andrews said. “That sounds cliché but that’s really the name of the game. We’ve practiced that over and over when we need a quick look, just him coming off the ball screen. The same for Orlando (Williams). They both made big shots when it counted down the stretch. We had to trust that our athleticism and our experience would take us through 32 minutes. The game wasn’t over at 30 minutes. It’s over at 32.”

Andrews was referring to the dire situation the Vikings faced when they trailed 60-55 and Sibert had the ball poked away and go off his leg. Princeton tried to steal the ball back but sent Crawford, who was sensational while scoring a game-high 23 points, to the foul line with 1:20 to play. He missed the front end of a one-and-one and Marquis Horne ripped down the rebound.

Williams, a smooth, 6-3 point guard, then found a crease and banked in a runner with 1:12 to play to cut the LaSalle advantage to 60-57. Princeton then forced the Lancers (23-3) to commit a turnover with a high pass to the baseline, setting up Sibert’s heroics. He collected a pass on the left wing, made a hard move to the right and drained the game-tying three off one dribble, causing an explosion on the Princeton side of Cintas.

Crawford tried to respond but missed a three of his own, and Horne put the Vikings ahead by laying in a feed from Williams with 31 seconds to play. Once again, Crawford eyed a three but missed and Sibert skied for the board and was fouled with 10.8 seconds remaining.

He swished both ends of a one-and-one to ice the biggest victory of his life.

“I just did what I thought was necessary for us to win,” he said.

“It was pretty hard. It was a hard-fought battle, but we were able to come out with the victory. We’re a great team. We came out and played together and that’s how we came out with a victory.”

Williams led Princeton in the scoring column with 22 points and Horne made several important plays of his own, but the final moments belonged mainly to Sibert, a cool customer if ever there was one.

“That comes from my grandma,” he said. “She passed away recently. When she passed, I told her that everything I do is for her now. I can’t get scared of nobody. I’m doing it for her.”

Sibert seemed to relish his chances to perform with the game on the line, especially when he attempted crucial free throws. After splashing his final two, he emphatically said ‘I told you’ while looking over at his older brother, Logan.

“I was missing free throws and he told me in practice, ‘We’re going to have to work on that,’ ” Sibert said. “I remember I told him next game I’m making all of them. After I made them I told him, ‘I don’t miss free throws any more.’ ”

Sibert had missed several free throws in the tournament including his effort in the Vikings’ regional semifinal win over Cincinnati Aiken on Wednesday.

“He struggled at the free-throw line the other day, and thankfully the pressure and the necessity to make the free throws wasn’t there,” Andrews said. “But a big-time player has got to make big-time shots under a lot of pressure. They did a good job of executing their game plan and taking the ball out of his hands at times, but at the end of the day we have enough good players to get it done and they proved it.”

Against the Lancers, Sibert was 9 for 9 on the stripe and 4 of 8 from the field. In his 29 minutes he added to his 18 points with eight rebounds, two assists and three steals. For the season, he is averaging 15.6 points, 3.8 rebounds and 2.0 steals per game while shooting 51 percent from the floor including 39 percent from behind the arc.

None of that matters now, though, as Princeton, and everyone else still standing, is simply in survive-and-advance mode.

The lead seesawed in the fourth quarter and momentum shifted swiftly when Crawford nailed a three to break a 55-all tie and moments later hit a pair of free throws to up the LaSalle lead to 60-55 with 1:43 to play. Power forward Danny McElroy, who added 12 points, was holding sway inside and Crawford was making plays on the perimeter.

“He’s a great player and he made great shots, him and Danny,” Sibert said. “Those guys played very well, as we expected them to do. But a better team beats two good players.”

“We’ve played against LaSalle so many times and we know their guys so well,” Andrews said. “Really, it’s a pretty close group of guys between the two teams. They have two seniors who are terrific players who weren’t going to go away and they’re well-prepared and well coached. No way were they going to get here and lay down.”

Still, the Vikings believed all along the game was theirs to seize.

“We did a couple silly things and the refs made a couple bad calls, but we can’t blame it on that,” Sibert said. “We came out and did what we had to do when we got the ball back and we played straight-up great defense.”

Princeton reached the state final four for only the second time in school history – the Vikings were runners-up in 1972 – but with Sibert, Williams and Horne there could be a new chapter to write.

And to add to the drama, Princeton may have to get through Columbus Northland and junior superstar Jared Sullinger – Sibert’s AAU teammate, close friend and a fellow OSU commitment. Northland faces Dublin Scioto in a regional final in Columbus tonight.

When asked if he is now rooting for Northland, Sibert said, “I don’t know. We just want to make sure we win when we get there. That’s all we can hope for.”


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