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

Dollar stepped to the line, prepared to finally put Princeton away. He missed the first one. “You’re like, ‘Oh,'” says Sydney Johnson. He front-rimmed the second. “You’re like, ‘Wow.’ The crowd is into it. Next play.”

UCLA still had the ball, but Kris Johnson missed a runner in the lane. Goodrich cradled the rebound. Princeton called time-out, with 21 seconds left. Everyone knew what was coming next. Recalling how he was open at the end of the first half, Lewullis yelled “center forward, center forward” — the name of the play Princeton called at that point in the game — to everyone in earshot as he ran off the floor for the time-out. The coaching staff huddled. “I think we all said, ‘center forward’ at the same time,” says John Thompson III, the Georgetown coach. Often, the assistants threw different options at Carril. This time, the call was easy. “In some of those time-out huddles, things weren’t always too clear,” says Joe Scott, another Carril assistant, who became Princeton head coach from 2004 to ’07 and is now the head coach at the University of Denver. “There was a calm and clarity among the coaches, and that really transcends down to the players.”

Since O’Bannon was playing Lewullis tight, the coaches thought the freshman would be the best option for the backdoor. Carril gives Scott credit for adding a wrinkle: Lewullis was told to cut once, and if he was not open, to go out back out to the wing. Meanwhile, Goodrich would turn his head away, then glance back at Lewullis and bounce him a pass on a second cut. (For his part, Doyal insists that he first told Lewullis to cut the second time. On this point, eyewitness memories are hazy. I, for one, was on the outskirts of the huddle and remember nothing; Scott says he does not recall who first brought up the second cut. “Fine, let Doyal have it,” jokes Thompson, who also doesn’t remember who made the call. Several teammates dispute Doyal’s recollection but offer no clear alternative. Scott may have mentioned cutting twice when the coaches huddled together, and Doyal might have just blurted it out first when they rejoined the players.)

In the UCLA huddle, the advice was simple: watch the backdoor.

Even though Carril was asking this green freshman to hit the winning shot, against the national champions, on national television, Lewullis stayed calm as Johnson dribbled up the court. “We ran the offense so much in practice, I knew what to do,” says Lewullis. “It was just another play. But I did think, ‘Don’t screw up so that Carril yells at you.'” Goodrich ran up to the high post, then back to the low post, before setting up at the elbow; Johnson bounced him the ball with 8.7 seconds. Johnson and Doyal set up a double screen for Henderson, but Mitch Henderson, like everyone else, fixed his eyes on the right side of the floor.

There, Lewullis made his first cut to the basket. O’Bannon didn’t fall for it. “I’m there,” thought O’Bannon. “‘I got this. I got this.” Lewullis ambled back out to the wing, trying to lull O’Bannon to sleep, for that split second. Goodrich gave the perfunctory look to the other side, before taking a dribble toward Lewullis.

Then Lewullis cut again. The Princeton bench, knowing what was coming, rose like a wave.

Goodrich did not hesitate on the pass. “You’re really worried when the defender’s hands are low,” says Goodrich. “When that happens, he can go down for it. But O’Bannon was pretty upright. Gabe [Lewullis] had pretty much beat the guy. So it was never, ‘Oooooh, what do I do now?'”

Lewullis caught the ball. “I can see it right now,” says O’Bannon. “It just got by my fingertips.” Lewullis jumped off two feet; Kris Johnson, knowing O’Bannon was beat, dropped down the lane and went for the block. “I jumped as high as I could, man, and felt that thing graze off my fingernail,” says Johnson. “I felt it. I mean I felt it. I felt it. I thought I had it. If I could just jump a little higher, a little higher, history could have been rewritten.”

Lewullis banked it in.

“Oh, my God.”

“He got it! He got it!” shouted Gus Johnson. “Ohhhhh yes!” Buckner yelled at the same time.

“To this day, I don’t know how Gabe didn’t get his shot blocked,” says Doyal. “He jumped an inch off the ground, and Charles O’Bannon had about a 45-in. vertical. So he shot it over two guys while going an inch off the ground. To Gabe’s credit, it’s awfully easy to miss that shot.”

But four seconds remained. Dollar rushed up the court, and the name Tyus Edney popped into several Princeton brains. The prior year Edney, a UCLA guard, dribbled the length of the court and hit a layup in 4.8 seconds, giving UCLA a second-round victory over Missouri on its way to the title. However, a ref blew his whistle, and play suddenly stopped. Mass confusion ensued: did UCLA call a time-out? Where should they get the ball on the sidelines? How much time should be on the clock? UCLA had, in fact, called time-out, but the ensuing seven-minute delay felt like seven hours.

“Play the f—ing game!” thought Doyl Burkett, the Princeton sophomore in the stands. “I was literally a nail biter at that time,” says Burkett. “I was the stereotypical nervous guy with the furrowed brow. I was very conscious of that: just gnawing, gnawing.”

Play finally resumed, and UCLA got the ball on the sidelines, in front of half-court, with 2.2 seconds left. The placement was actually a gift to the Bruins, because Dollar hadn’t advanced that far up the court when the whistle blew. Would Carril, sitting on the bench in his wrinkled gray sweater, hand cupping his head like he was expecting disaster, be tortured once again? But the Princeton assistants acutely scouted UCLA’s out-of-bounds play, and the Bruins followed the script, getting the ball to Bailey in the right corner. Johnson was there to pressure the shot: Bailey fired an air ball.

“Oh!” shouted Gus Johnson. “They beat ‘em!”

Why’d You Do It to Me?
In a burst of guttural joy, our bench rushed midcourt — if we ran that fast during practice, perhaps we’d be playing more. We were intent on tackling the Princeton players. Are you kidding? These guys just pulled this off? CBS seems to replay our hysteria every March, which has become somewhat embarrassing for me: “Hey, I saw you running off the bench against UCLA last night.” You only need so many reminders about your lack of impact on a game. But our spontaneous charge conveyed a team’s true sense of affection for one another.

When the buzzer sounded, Henderson instantly leapt off the floor and raised both his fists into the air. The lens of Tom Russo, a freelance photographer for the Associated Press, was homed in on Henderson the entire last play. “As you watch the games, you try to figure out who is really emotional, and hope you pick the right guy,” says Russo, now a staff photographer for the Daily Reporter of Greenfield, Ind., an Indianapolis suburb. “It seems that guards get more excited than the big guys. I don’t know why.” Russo knew he caught Henderson’s leap, but when he dashed back to the darkroom, he prayed for UCLA anguish in the background.

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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.