UNION — Mitch Henderson knew his Princeton men’s basketball team needed high-level play.

He got his wish Tuesday night.

But the Tigers dropped their ninth straight win after they couldn’t hold a double-digit lead in the second half and fell to Iona 70-64 in a neutral-site game at Harwood Arena on Kean University’s campus.

“It was a great opportunity for us,” Henderson said. “Very happy to play against a person of this level. They were very good and we have a lot to work on.”

Princeton (8-3) has won eight straight, but that came against competition that had an average NET and KenPom rating of 271. Iona (7-2), the preseason Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference favorite, had a 34 NET and a 58 KenPom.

So while it wasn’t a power-five opponent — there aren’t any on the schedule — the Tigers got everything they needed, except for a win two weeks after Ivy League play ended.

“We’ve got two more (non-league) games, so we’ll go one at a time,” said senior forward Thoson Eubuomwan, who had 12 points, four rebounds and seven assists. “I feel pretty good about where we are as a team.”

Princeton led by 10 with 13:40 left before the Gaels responded with a 13-1 run to take the lead and set up a back-and-forth finish.

Walter Clayton Jr. scored 14 of his game-high 20 points in the final seven minutes, including a go-ahead layup with 52.1 seconds left, after Ryan Langberg tied the game with 63 points for the Tigers. made the only three-pointer in the second half.

Evbuomwan then split a pair of free throws with 32.1 seconds left, and after Clayton made two free throws on the other end, Princeton turned the ball over to seal its fate.

Iona made 15 of 20 free throws while Princeton made 8 of 15.

“We had a tremendous will to win with seven minutes left,” Gaels coach Rick Pitino said. “…Walt didn’t play particularly well, but I’ve seen him do it so many times. When it comes to winning, he takes every game.”

Princeton’s Toson Eubumwan (front) goes up for a rebound as Iona’s Dennis Jenkins (back) defends him during an NCAA men’s basketball game at Harwood Arena in Union on Tuesday night. (Kyle Franko/Trentonian Photo)

High praise

Eubuomwan certainly caught the attention of Hall of Fame coach Iona.

“He’s a great player in college,” Pitino said. “He makes all those guys around him better. They get great shots because when he backs you up against the guard on the switch, the center moves behind the shield and when you double, he pops out for a 3”.

Does the Hall of Fame coach see him as a potential pro?

“For him to become an NBA player – he can oversee and make a lot of money – he has to get stronger, he has to shoot the three better, because in NBA games, except for Kevin Durant, there are very few people who make shots from middle distance to perfection,” Pitino said. “He can be a professional. He reminds me a lot of Brandon Ingram, except Ingram can shoot him. If he continues to work on his shot, there’s no doubt he has a future.”

Although Ewbuomwan was grateful for the praise, he would have liked to have won.

“I appreciate the words, but it wasn’t good enough tonight. I need to be the best for my team,” Evbuomwan said. “If I make that free throw, I’m sure we’re going to win this game.”

Big Ki

Keeshawn Kellman is making the most of his senior season after an injury plagued career to this point.

The senior center had 16 points, five rebounds and three dunks to pace Iona’s All-MAAC center Nellie Junior Joseph.

“It’s nice to play,” Kellman said. “I just wanted to keep playing every game.”

Henderson knows the 6-foot-9, 240-pounder’s play will be critical to getting the Tigers where they want to be.

“He completely changes us,” Henderson said. “We’ve asked him to do so much and he’s always in the gym. He works tirelessly on his game and we have missed him the last few years. I told him a few minutes into the game that you have to learn against a team like this to take over and assert yourself, and he did.”

Princeton outscored Iona, 38-22, in the paint, which proved crucial as it shot just 5-for-18 on 3s and the starting backcourt of Langborg and Matt Alok combined to go 2-for-13. Aloka had eight assists and seven rebounds.

Henderson said he hopes the streak against Iona can continue in the future.

“My alumni are mad at me, everybody’s mad at me because we’re not playing big games,” Henderson said. “I’m calling everybody 50 times and we’re going to keep working on them. I am grateful to these guys for playing. It’s a great game.”

Princeton's Matt Aloka (left) pulls away from Iona's Osborne Shema (right) during an NCAA men's basketball game at Harwood Arena in Union on Tuesday night.  (Kyle Franko/Trentonian Photo)
Princeton’s Matt Aloka (left) pulls away from Iona’s Osborne Shema (right) during an NCAA men’s basketball game at Harwood Arena in Union on Tuesday night. (Kyle Franko/Trentonian Photo)


The Tigers host Delaware on Friday before wrapping up non-conference play against Keene.

The Ivy League season begins on New Year’s Eve with a matinee against Harvard.

“It depends on what happens after today,” Henderson said. ” How do we react to a game like this because we are two games away from the championship? The league is great and we’ve gone five of the first seven so we have to be great away from home and we’ll have to impose our will. This group can be very special.”

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