TAMPA, Fla. — Princeton knew it could play with Kentucky.
It wasn't bravado. It wasn't false confidence. It was smart kids and good players and the Ivy Leaguers' belief they could go toe-to-toe with the traditional power right down to the wire.
And so they did.
All the way until two seconds and one shot ended up separating the two.
Kentucky's Brandon Knight hit the shot, his only made shot, and Big Blue survived 59-57 in the second round of the NCAA Tournament at the St. Pete Forum, as the little team from New Jersey nearly repeated the upset pulled back in 1996 when it toppled UCLA.
Few thought it could, but Princeton thought it could, and that's all that mattered.
"I think we prepared the whole week to beat these guys," said Kareem Maddox, the 6-foot-8 forward who scored 12 points in the loss. "And you know, our team believed we could do it. I mean, I don't know if there was one moment where the switch kind of flipped, but you know I just think that we knew what kind of team we had and what kind of heart we had, and we knew we could compete."
"We've had a lot of confidence in each other from day one of this season," said his teammate, Dan Mavraides, the guard who scored a team-high 14 points. "Once we settled into the game, we knew we could play with them."
So if Princeton thought it could beat Kentucky, and nearly did, what will happen Saturday with West Virginia, a team that knows it can beat Kentucky, because it did — last year in the Elite Eight?
You can argue the West Virginia that beat Clemson 84-76 in Thursday's first game here is a different WVU team than a season ago. You'd be right. No De'Sean Butler. No Devin Ebanks. But this is a different Kentucky, too.
The new kids on the Blueville block are named Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb, and Thursday afternoon at the St. Pete Times Forum they relied on their elders. This wasn't East Tennessee State a year ago, when the Cats dropped a bomb full of talent on a first-round foe. This was all about survive and advance and Knight's nerve.
Princeton led the Southeastern Conference Tournament champs 44-39 with 12:15 left. It was at that moment you could almost feel a nation flipping from the end of Morehead State's monster upset of Louisville — a No. 4 seed shown the door — over to where the other commonwealth school was navigating a banana peel.
Why? Board work prompted Princeton's production. The Tigers outrebounded Kentucky 28-26. Each team pulled 20 defensive rebounds. But the Cats managed six offensive boards. Princeton grabbed eight. Second-chance points: Princeton nine, Kentucky seven.
But then West Virginia was born to board as well. Bob Huggins' teams love to downshift the pace and play smashmouth. Thursday, the Mountaineers clinched their win over Clemson by snatching the ball away from the Tigers three successive possessions at midcourt.
Princeton turned the Cats over just nine times but made John Calipari's team pay. The Tigers scored 15 points off turnovers. Kentucky scored four points off turnovers. Such differences keep an underdog alive every time.
Perhaps you can chalk this all up to Kentucky's jitters. Kentucky started three freshmen, and its three veterans played supporting (Darius Miller and DeAndre Liggins) to limited (Josh Harrellson) roles a year ago.
Give Princeton more than a pinch of credit. Sydney Johnson's team had played elimination-type games in winning the Ivy League, including a one-game playoff win over Harvard. The Tigers majored in white knucklers and self-belief.
"I think we can play with anyone in the country," Mavraides said, "and I think hopefully we showed that tonight, at the very least."
Come Saturday, what will West Virginia show Kentucky?