Keeping Score

Princeton vs. UCLA: Reflections on a Historic Upset

Fifteen years ago, the underdog Ivy Leaguers from Princeton knocked off the defending champions, UCLA, in perhaps the most memorable first-round upset in NCAA basketball tournament history. The inside story, from a TIME writer who lived it

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Tom Russo / AP
Tom Russo / AP

Princeton guard Mitch Henderson jumps in celebration of the Tigers' victory over UCLA in the first round of the 1996 NCAA men's basketball tournament

Goodrich and Jelani McCoy, a 6-ft. 10′-in. UCLA freshman, jumped center; the Bruins controlled the tip. Just 17 seconds into the game, Toby Bailey nailed a three-pointer from the corner. Moments later, McCoy dunked the ball over forward Doyal’s head. Two minutes in, UCLA had a quick 7-0 lead. “I remember being like, ‘Whoa, we’re in trouble,” says Sydney Johnson. UCLA missed a few easy shots that could have really blown things open, but the Bruins were still pitching a 7-0 shutout entering the first television time-out. “One of my assistants told me, ‘I don’t like that, getting off to such a fast start,’” Harrick says. Complacency often sets in. “But what are you going to do?”

Princeton settled down in that time-out huddle. “I thought, ‘This could go really bad, I might as well get a shot up,’” says Doyal. “I had just gotten dunked on, and the way my life had gone, I could be benched in 30 seconds. I might not play the rest of the game.” After the play resumed, Doyal nailed a three-pointer — his only field goal, but a big one. A minute later, the Tigers whipped the ball around the perimeter to find an open Lewullis, whose three cut UCLA’s lead to one, 7-6.

Although Princeton averted early disaster, UCLA’s physical advantage would surely hold. McCoy, for example, swatted Goodrich’s hook shot; no one could block Steve’s hook that year. Goodrich, and the Princeton bench, thought it was goal tending — the tape shows that the call could have gone either way. UCLA pumped the lead back up to seven. But with 6 min. 41 sec. left in the half, a team that had averaged 79 points per game had scored all of 16 points. Princeton’s slow pace was partially to blame for the low-scoring output; also, the Bruins couldn’t crack the zone, which Jesse Rosenfeld, Princeton’s backup center that year, astutely labeled “obnoxious.” Every time UCLA looked to push the ball up, five Tigers were back, with their hands up in the air like eager CYO players. “Sometimes we’d follow the cutter through, sometimes we didn’t,” says Goodrich. “What were we doing? Who knows? We certainly didn’t. But the best part, it made those guys stop and ask, ‘What are we supposed to do against this?’”

When UCLA tried to pound the ball inside, Tiger hands would often get a piece of it, disrupting UCLA’s flow. “Big-time teams, I’ve noticed through the years, always try to play power ball against Princeton,” says Carril. “And they were trying to dump it inside there. We were pretty good, through the years, of keeping the ball out of the pivot. And we were pretty good at it that year too. So that helped us — even though they were a good shooting team, we seemed to be one step ahead of them the whole time.”

With just under five minutes left in the first half, Princeton’s Mitch Henderson stripped the ball from UCLA big man J.R. Henderson, and blew by two UCLA defenders for a left-handed layup, tying the game at 16. For the first time, the crowd really turned up the volume, in Princeton’s favor. “I felt like that was a turning point,” says Rosenfeld. “The fans realized we could match up with them in a couple of areas.” Mitch Henderson was a tremendous athlete; after he graduated two years later, the Atlanta Hawks invited him to training camp. “Mitch showed he was the fastest guy on the court,” says Rosenfeld, “and you can tell they didn’t expect that.”

The UCLA frustration was starting to build. Near the end of the first half, in a scene largely unnoticed by millions watching on TV but cherished by the members of the team, UCLA’s Kris Johnson exchanged some words with James Mastaglio, a Princeton sophomore who started most of that season but was now coming off the bench. The CBS cameras caught Mastaglio mouthing “F— you! F— you!” to Johnson. It turns out that after a tussle, and a stare down, Johnson had hit Mastaglio with the ultimate insult. “Nerd!” Johnson barked at him.

“It was an incredible line,” says Mastaglio, a hedge-fund trader in New York who was a key player on Princeton’s next two Ivy title teams. As a senior, he started alongside Goodrich, Henderson, Lewullis and Earl on a Tiger team that reached the top 10 in national rankings. “I really had nothing else to come back with. That was the last thing I expected to hear in the middle of a tight college-basketball game. And if he could have seen my grades, he would know I was not a nerd. Just ask my professors.”

When reminded of his smack talk, Johnson is a bit embarrassed. “I called him a nerd? Oh, great,” says Johnson, a basketball analyst at foxsportswest.com. “That’s how weak my bagging game was. All I could say to the Princeton kid is, ‘Hey, shut up, nerd.’”

With some 20 seconds left in the first half, Princeton called for a play dubbed “center forward.” Essentially, center forward called for Goodrich to run from the low post, under the basket, to the elbow, on one side of the foul line. He’d receive a pass from one of the guards: once he caught the ball, a forward on the wing would cut to the basket for a backdoor layup. The other players would set a double screen for a shot on the other side of the floor. “I remember on my recruiting trip, they always talked about center forward, like it was this great f—ing play,” says Goodrich. “We’d get dunks out of it. We never got s— out of center forward on that backdoor cut — hardly ever. It was a great way to start the sequence: we usually got threes out of it, but I don’t remember getting the layup.”

In this case, however, Lewullis cut backdoor, and was open by eight miles. His layup trimmed UCLA’s lead to one point, 19-18, going into halftime. While Princeton sprinted to the locker room, peppy as all hell, UCLA slogged. The unsightly score spelled trouble. “There was panic,” says Kris Johnson. “Make no mistake, there was panic. We had been scoring in the 80s that year. For us to get 19 points in the first half — there was that feeling where your heart drops. And your stomach. You get these butterflies, and you’re like ‘Ohhhhh, s—.’ Seriously, we had that ‘Ohhhhh, s—’ feeling.”

We Gambled Big
“So you’re the guy who’s calling me to gloat?” asks the familiar voice on the other end of the line. No, I assure Reggie Miller, the ex-Indiana Pacers star and current NBA analyst for TNT, I’m not trying to stick anything in his face. I’m just curious to know, How did it feel to get jeered in the town where you’re a hero?

Miller was in the RCA Dome that night, rooting for UCLA, his alma mater. During the second half, when it was apparent that Princeton had a serious shot at pulling off the upset, his face appeared on the JumboTron. Miller, a UCLA alum and All-Star for the hometown Pacers, was wearing a backward hat. Realizing he was on the screen, Miller flashed a devilish smile, then turned the hat around, pointing to the letters on the front: UCLA. It did not matter that Miller was at the peak of his clutch-shooting powers, having turned the Pacers into NBA title contenders. Thousands of boos came pouring down.

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1 comments
BigLaw_Clients
BigLaw_Clients

UCLA had four future NBA second round picks on their team in Bailey, Henderson, O'Bannon and McCoy.  Only McCoy had a career of any length, no other player on the Arizona roster played in the NBA.  They were a #4 seed that lost to a #13 seed in Princeton.


SCU's win over Arizona was far more impressive.  It was only the second time a #2 seed was knocked off by a #15 seed.  SCU had only Nash as a future NBA player, and he was only 1 for 7 shooting in the game.  Arizona had eight players on their roster who played in the NBA at one time or another, including three first round picks who had lengthy careers (Chris Mills, Damon SToudamire, Khalid Reeves), and Stokes, who was a high second round pick; then Ed Bohannon who played four years in the NBA, Geary who played two and Owes who played one.

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