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

Miller quickly mentions that fans of the other schools that played that day were still in the crowd. Those booers weren’t Hoosiers. That’s true, I tell him, but there were still thousands of Indiana locals in the building, including more than a few Pacers fans, who were still giving him the Bronx cheer. “I brought it on myself,” says Miller today, with a laugh. “I was antagonizing the building by flipping my hat around, and letting people know that, yes, I’m wearing my colors proudly. I knew what kind of reaction I was going to get.” At that point Miller, the players and the 30,000-plus people in the building were aware that the fans were propelling the Tigers. “Once it got close, it was almost that gladiator moment,” Miller says. “Win the crowd, you win your freedom. That’s what it was. You guys got the crowd, and I think that totally took my Bruins out of the mix.”

The second half, however, had started slowly for Princeton. On one possession, for example, Sydney Johnson misfired from the top of the key. During Johnson’s freshman season, he had been one of the most accurate three-point shooters in the country. But in his sophomore year, he added more muscle to his wiry frame, which improved his ability to defend and rebound but threw off the mechanics of his shot. So Carril switched his form, and at this point in his career, he kind of held the ball in front of him and pushed it toward the basket. It wasn’t a technique taught at basketball camps. While he shot 45% from three-point range as a freshman, he was now hitting around 30% of his threes, a precipitous drop.

A 28-year-old play-by-play announcer, working his first NCAA tournament for CBS, took note of Johnson’s odd form. “Interesting release for Sydney Johnson with his jump shot,” said Gus Johnson, now one of the more popular announcers in the country, who enjoys a cult following due to his loud, ecstatic calls of close college-basketball games. His broadcast partner that night, former NBA player and coach Quinn Buckner, started cackling. Sydney Johnson’s form was a joke on national TV. “I laughed because I didn’t know the right thing to say,” says Bucker, who now calls games, with Gus Johnson, for the Big Ten Network.

Gus Johnson defends his partner’s giggles. “I know Sydney is the coach and they’re doing well now at Princeton,” he says. “But you know he had the ugliest shot maybe in the history of college basketball.”

So what unfolded next was even more remarkable. Harrick had inserted freshman Brandon Loyd, a spot shooter who rarely played that season, into the game as a zone buster; our defense was so packed into the lane, Harrick figured that Loyd could get open on the perimeter. He was right. With 13 minutes left, a Loyd three from the right wing gave UCLA a 26-23 lead. But then Sydney Johnson, almost as if he heard Buckner’s laughing and wanted to exact a little revenge, fired another one of his unsightly push shots, this one from the parking lot.

Bang. Tie game. As he ran back down court, Johnson waved his arms up in the air, like a quarterback trying to rally the crowd, with a huge smile on his face. In a little over two weeks’ time, Johnson’s postshot exhortation would be featured in One Shining Moment, the wildly popular tournament-highlight reel that CBS airs after the title game. “It was like, ‘This is terrific,'” says Johnson. “We gambled big, we hit, let’s celebrate. You’re not going to act normal. I glanced at their bench, and they weren’t too happy with that.” Johnson hit two more threes that half, including a crucial one with six minutes to go; at that point, UCLA was up by seven points, 41-34, and looked prime to finally pull away.

He Got It!
Forty-one points. The game was approaching the three-minute mark, and UCLA was still stuck on 41 points. Now the Bruins led by two, 41-39, as Bruin point guard Cameron Dollar brought the ball up the floor. Dollar tossed it to Charles O’Bannon on the left wing; O’Bannon threw a soft pass to Kris Johnson at the elbow. Chris Doyal, the lone Princeton senior starter who was seriously thinking of quitting the team over the Christmas break because of Carril’s constant berating — Carril called him “Mr. Flim-Flam,” “social butterfly” and worse — sneaked up from bottom of the zone and picked it off. “I looked up and thought, ‘Wow, that guy is going to throw the ball to the top,'” says Doyal, who bounced around the pro-basketball backwaters for years after graduation, suiting up for teams in Ireland and Mexico before settling into a finance job in London, where he now lives. “So I kind of stepped in there. My big regret is that I fumbled the ball. If I get a clean steal, I might have a dunk shot on national television.”

Instead, before losing the ball permanently — and perhaps earning the eternal enmity of Carril — Doyal shuffled it to Lewullis, as if it were a hot potato. Lewullis tossed it to Mitch Henderson, who charged down court for a three-on-one fast break. Henderson threw a bounce pass to Sydney Johnson, who banked in the layup. It may have been our first fast break of the season. Tie game.

“Hooooold on!” Gus Johnson yelled on CBS. Those words, more than any other moment in the game, still give me goose bumps.

UCLA panicked on the next possession, flittering the ball around the zone — Princeton almost stole it twice — before the Bruins’ Toby Bailey rushed a three-pointer with six seconds left on the shot clock. The crowd was now firmly in a frenzy that would last the rest of the game. Bailey missed, Princeton rebounded and marched down the floor; with the shot clock again winding down, Lewullis fired a three from the right wing. No good. UCLA got the board and called time out with 1 min. 38 sec. to go. Out of the break, Bailey drove on the baseline, but Doyal took a charge, the third offensive foul he drew on the day. After each one, he put an arm in the air, as if he had won the Olympic decathlon.

I asked Doyal why he was being such a buffoon. “The majority of the guys I guarded were bigger than me,” says Doyal. “So I would try to do things that annoy them, and throw them off their game. And there’s nothing worse than when you commit an offensive foul, to jump up and see a guy raising his arm, victorious.”

Princeton hadn’t clinched anything yet; in fact, the next possession nearly cost the Tigers the game. Mitch Henderson and Sydney Johnson got mixed up on a pass: Dollar grabbed the loose ball, but Johnson bear-hugged him. Intentional foul: UCLA would get two foul shots, and possession. “At that point, I thought to myself, ‘That’s it. You guys are dead,'” says Matthew Henshon, a Princeton player from the early 1990s and future top aide to Senator Bill Bradley during the 2000 presidential campaign, who was sitting courtside, covering the game for Princeton’s alumni magazine. To Sydney Johnson, the foul did not destroy Princeton’s dream. “You are stunned, everyone is stunned,” Johnson says. “I felt a little bad, yeah, but it was one of moments in a game where you make a mistake, but it doesn’t do much benefit to dwell on it.”

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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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