The contrasting styles were also appealing. UCLA wanted to speed the tempo, while Princeton slowed it down. Carril’s impending retirement, and the Lewullis backdoor, just added to the drama. And it would be naive to think the racial composition of the teams doesn’t play some role in the game’s enduring legend (Sydney Johnson, the current Princeton coach and captain of that 1996 team, was our lone African-American player).
But maybe most importantly, Princeton vs. UCLA stands out because it marks a turning point in the evolution of college basketball, and the NCAA tournament. Back in 1996, the Internet was a fledgling medium. Sites did not offer blanket coverage of quality “midmajor” teams from smaller conferences. Networks like ESPNU and CBS College Sports didn’t exist to give exposure to less notable teams. “No one knew who the hell we were,” says Johnson over lunch at a Princeton pub in January, while his players were preparing for their first-semester final exams. Johnson is coaching in his first tournament: Princeton faces Kentucky on March 17. “They knew coach Carril, they knew about our style, but they didn’t know about our players and what we could do. Then all of a sudden, we beat the national champions.”
The surprise was part of the charm. Now, there are websites devoted to breaking down the bona fides of midmajor programs. When Cornell makes it to the Sweet 16, like it did last year, or Butler reaches the national championship, it’s no great shock. Everyone knew those teams were talented. After Princeton vs. UCLA, the Internet began its explosion, and the arms race to build serious basketball programs at smaller schools began. Schools like Gonzaga started proving that, indeed, you could build consistent national contenders outside the big power conferences. “I see Princeton as the last of the little schools that could,” says Les Carpenter, the feature writer for Yahoo! Sports who covered Princeton vs. UCLA as a columnist for the Connecticut Post. “It was the last of the great upsets.”
Here’s the inside story of how it happened.
As the bus rambled back to Princeton, N.J., rolling over the eastern Pennsylvania steel country where Carril was reared, a bunch of college kids were belting out old saloon songs that didn’t make a bit of sense. But the coach, a fountain of despair the entire season, was leading the joyous chorus. As he had written in the locker room of Stabler Arena on the campus of Lehigh University that evening, he was retiring. And he was happy. So we were too. And everyone cluelessly sang along.
No one had ever seen the guy this thrilled. After all, Carril was a man who would get so angry in practice that he would rip his shirt off, exposing tufts of gray chest hair to stunned 19-year-old kids trying not to crack up during the tirade. If you want to know why Princeton knocked off UCLA on March 14, 1996, start no further than the game five nights beforehand, a playoff against the University of Pennsylvania to determine the Ivy League winner. Penn was the three-time defending champion and had already whipped us twice that year. Though the final score of the first game, in January at Princeton, was 57-55, the result was deceiving. Toward the end of the game, we put together one of those typical college-basketball rallies that unfold when a team, knowing it has no real chance at winning, stops thinking too much and starts making crazy shots. In fact, with about a minute left, Carril, to my great surprise, threw me into the game; I immediately fired a three-pointer that, also to my great surprise, rattled in, helping ignite the futile comeback. (If you think I’m going to write all this stuff and not shamelessly mention the individual highlight of my college career, think again.)
Then, in early March, there would be no comeback. Princeton had a chance to clinch the title in the last game of the regular season, but Penn pounded us, 63-49, at the Palestra to force a playoff four nights later. Every slither of momentum favored the Quakers. “I was so nervous before that playoff game I thought I was going to throw up,” says Steve Goodrich, our outstanding center who would later play pro ball for six years in Europe and even earned a brief NBA stint, with the Chicago Bulls and New Jersey Nets, in the early 2000s. “I couldn’t get the f—ing butterflies out of my stomach. I felt so sick, thinking there was a possibility we were going to blow this whole season.”
Carril shuffled the lineup for the playoff, inserting Lewullis and guard Mitch Henderson, our most athletic player, into the starting five. The move worked: Lewullis helped hold one of Penn’s top scorers, Donald Moxley, to 0-14 shooting, and Princeton eked out a 63-56 overtime win. So the bus ride back to campus was incredibly cathartic. Selection Sunday was the next evening, and we all gathered in the room of senior Chris Doyal, our starting power forward, to discover our opponent. Everyone just wanted a plane trip that could almost serve as a spring break. When UCLA, a fourth seed, popped onto the screen, followed by Princeton, the 13th seed, the room roared. We’d be getting that trip — Indy might as well have been Cancún. Lewullis said, sarcastically, “So, it looks like we’ve got Mississippi State in the second round.”
Preparing to play the defending national champions was kind of surreal. “I mean, Charles O’Bannon is going to be guarding me!” Lewullis said one dinner after practice, referring to the UCLA forward and younger brother of Ed O’Bannon, who was most outstanding player in the 1995 NCAA tournament as a senior. Benchwarmers like me served on the scout team, whose job was to mimic the opponent’s offense in practice. We were certainly impressed with UCLA’s personnel, but not scared. “We were so carefree,” says Johnson. “Just playing with house money. And we knew we were good. We were like, ‘Yeah, we know UCLA. They’re good, but we’ll just go out and play.’ It was almost like not having an awareness of what we were against. That was a hell of an advantage.”
All season, we had played a man-to-man defense. For this game, however, Carril decided we’d forsake all offensive rebounds. “I said, ‘Don’t go for any offense rebounds because you’re not going to get any,’” Carril remembers. He told us to sprint back into a tight zone. “It was, ‘Hold your follow through, maybe,’” says Brian Earl, a freshman sharpshooter who would go on to hit more three-pointers than any other player in Princeton history. Earl is now one of Johnson’s assistants at Princeton. “You were in trouble if you didn’t run back on defense. Whoever makes it back to the line first wins a prize.”
This strategy, the thinking went, would slow down UCLA’s potent fast break, and force the Bruins to beat us with outside shooting. “It was this crazy thing we concocted,” says John Thompson III, now the head coach at Georgetown University, who was a 30-year-old volunteer assistant coach for the Princeton team. His Georgetown Hoyas will play the winner of the USC–Virginia Commonwealth play-in game in the opening round of this year’s tournament. “And make no mistake: to be playing one way on defense the whole year, and then change it that late in the game, we were taking a risk,” says Thompson. “Coach Carril made a gutsy call.”