“Oh, my God.”
Gabe Lewullis does not remember uttering those words, under his breath, late one Thursday night 15 years ago. But after he hit one of the most memorable shots in college-basketball history, the national television cameras caught him mouthing that phrase of disbelief. “To this day, I would not believe that I said it, if I didn’t see it,” says Lewullis, 34, now an orthopedic surgeon in Boston, back then a fuzzy-headed freshman from Allentown, Pa., who was starting for just the second time in 16 games for the Princeton University team. “The moment was just like gray to me. It’s weird how that works.”
Lewullis had spent a significant portion of the 1995-96 season in his coach’s doghouse, which was more like a kennel, since so many Princeton players had a spot. He hurt an ankle, and missed some time with a virus. Even worse for Lewullis, his coach — Pete Carril, who is now enshrined in the hoops Hall of Fame — thought he did not cut fast enough to the basket or bring enough energy to practice. “There’s a name for guys like you,” Carril told him one day. “Phlegmatic. Why are so you f—ing phlegmatic?”
But now, in front of over 30,000 fans at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, and millions more on CBS, Lewullis had just hit a backdoor layup with four seconds left, giving Princeton a 43-41 lead over UCLA, the defending national champions, and the most storied college-basketball program ever. Princeton would hold the advantage, and pull off a historic, shocking first-round upset.
As the country gears up for this year’s version of March Madness, another group of underdog teams — including the 2011 Princeton Tigers, who reached the tournament after hitting a buzzer beater against Harvard in the Ivy League playoff — are trying to repeat Princeton’s feat and win the hearts of all those sports fans who love the long shots. (Or, conversely, the enmity of office-pool participants who picked that big-time team to make the Final Four). Over the past 20 or so years, fans have witnessed a series of first-round stunners in the NCAA basketball tournament. In 1991, for example, Richmond shocked Syracuse to become the first 15th-seeded team to take a tournament game; two years later, Santa Clara University, led by a funky freshman point guard named Steve Nash, toppled Arizona. Back in 2005, tiny Bucknell, of Lewisburg, Pa., knocked off Kansas, a perennial favorite to win the championship.
These games were all classics. But they still haven’t gained the same level of lasting resonance, among hard-core, casual and even marginal sports fans, as Princeton vs. UCLA.
That 1996 game was blessed by an epic set of story lines. You had the defending champs, UCLA, the school that won 10 titles under the most revered coach in college-basketball history, the late John Wooden. UCLA was a Hall of Fame factory, the alma mater of Bill Walton and Lew Alcindor, Gail Goodrich and Jamaal Wilkes
On the other side you had Princeton, with its funny little coach, Carril. A Yoda-looking guy who wore rumpled sweaters, Carril would pound his feet during games, wave his hands in disgust, rip out his hair and practically cry after missed layups. In 1989, his 16th-seeded Tigers nearly knocked off the top team in the country, Georgetown. That game, a 50-49 Georgetown win, may have saved March Madness as we know it. At the time, the NCAA wanted to drop automatic tournament bids for the champs of some smaller conferences. These teams just weren’t competing. But Princeton vs. Georgetown became ESPN’s highest-rated college-basketball game ever. The duel proved the power of the upset — even the potential upset. The small schools remained in the tournament, and the event soon became a billion-dollar enterprise. In the three years after the Georgetown game, Carril kept falling a hair short of pulling off the upset, losing by four points to Arkansas, two to Villanova and eight to Syracuse.
Since Princeton did not offer athletic scholarships, and its admission standards were so strict, Carril couldn’t recruit the country’s elite athletes to central New Jersey. So in order for his teams to compete against superstars, he designed an unusual playing style that required patience, precision and deadeye shooting. Though Carril never had the fastest dribblers or highest leapers, the complex motions of the “Princeton offense” tired out opposing defenses, creating open shots for his players. Often, those shots were layups, produced by basketball’s ultimate yin-yang play, the backdoor. You think I’m coming to the wing for an outside shot, and since I can shoot, you’re playing me tight, so … bang, now I’m cutting to the basket, and you’re trailing me the whole time. Gotcha.
UCLA was Carril’s last shot to prove Princeton could actually beat, not just scare, a big-time program. Five nights before, after a stirring 63-56 overtime win over nemesis Penn in the Ivy playoff, Carril announced he was calling it quits when the season ended. He stunned his players, including me, by writing on a locker-room dry-erase board, “I’m retiring. I’m very happy.” He was too choked up to speak.
I had a courtside seat for that game in Indianapolis, on the Princeton bench. I was a sophomore, small — too small, and slow — forward on that 1996 team. The only action I saw was the pregame layup lines. But countless times over the past 15 years, my former teammates and I have all had conversations, even with people we’ve just met, along these lines:
“Oh yeah, you played basketball at Princeton? Were you in that team that beat UCLA?”
“Man, I remember that game, I was at my frat house at Scranton going wild.” Or “I was at a sports bar in Baltimore,” or “I was in my den, screaming at the television.” People — and, believe me, not just Princeton or UCLA alums — know precisely where they were, what they were doing and what they were drinking (often alcohol) during that game. About a year ago, Lewullis met with a patient, lying on a stretcher, in a pre-op room. “Hey, aren’t you the one who made that shot against UCLA?” he asked right before going under the knife.
While talking to my teammates and coaches, players and coaches from UCLA, and other people in the RCA Dome that night — fans, sportswriters, television announcers — for this story, we kicked around reasons why that game struck such a nerve. Part of it, of course, was due to the clash of two brand-name institutions, one more known for its academics, the other, though no scholarly slouch, more famous for piling up championships. “It was revenge of the nerds,” says Bill Hancock, the executive director for college football’s Bowl Championship Series, who held a similar leadership position for the NCAA basketball tournament in 1996, and sat beside the Princeton bench that night.
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.”
Most teams spend weeks perfecting their zone defenses. We had two days. “I remember [assistant coach Bill] Carmody cussing me out because I didn’t understand where to slide in the zone,” says Johnson. Carmody would take over as Princeton coach the next season; he’s now the head coach at Northwestern. “I asked, ‘What if a UCLA guy drops here?’ And he started yelling at me, ‘Other guys have figured it out! You figure it out!'”
Yet it was notable that while we were learning a knuckleball defense on the fly, UCLA was complaining about its seeding. Jim Harrick, UCLA’s coach in 1996, still thinks his team got hosed by the selection committee. “If I talk about it, people are going to say I’m sniveling,” says Harrick from his home in Southern California. “I’m really not sniveling, but I am. But I’m not sniveling behind the scenes.” Harrick points out that Arizona, which finished behind UCLA in the Pac-10 standings, played in Tempe, Ariz., for its opening rounds that year. But UCLA, the league champs, was forced to fly east. Harrick suspects that Bob Frederick, the athletic director at the University of Kansas who led the tournament-selection committee that year, did not want his school, which was seeded in the West Region, to share a bracket with UCLA. In December, the Bruins lost to Kansas in Lawrence, Kans., 85-70, but Harrick believes Kansas still feared UCLA. “You may think my thought process on this is strange, but crazy things have happened,” says Harrick. (Frederick died, after a bicycle accident, in 2009).
The Bruins had other problems. “There was just a lot of chemistry-type issues about who was going to be the star,” says Kris Johnson, the son of former NBA player and UCLA star Marques Johnson, and a sophomore forward for UCLA. “I can’t say we were the most focused team going into the tournament. We kind of went into it like, ‘Ivy League, schmivey league.’ It was a total ‘whatever.’ What-ever.”
In other words, UCLA arrived in Indianapolis embittered, a bit disinterested and contemplating conspiracies. Princeton, on the other hand, was soaking up the scenery. Everyone was geeked up that a police escort accompanied us from the Indianapolis airport to our hotel, which was a good half hour from downtown Indy and under construction; that’s the price you pay for being a lower seed. During the Ivy season, the only cops we saw on postmidnight bus trips through New England were those chasing down the long-haul truckers ready to pass out.
At the RCA Dome, Carril and a few of our players conducted a genuine press conference. “There was like a dais,” says Steve Goodrich. “We were used to being in the basement of Jadwin [Gym, Princeton’s home court], talking to, like, [former Trenton Times beat reporter] Mark Eckel. There’s a different level of national media and stuff, and that was certainly a first for us. We got these pins that got you access to stuff, the ball was different, your school’s name is on the banner for the regional. I mean, I took two days off from school every year to watch the first two days of the tournament. It was the dream. It’s what you play for.”
After playing in bandbox Ivy League gyms for the past two months, taking the floor of the RCA Dome, home of the Indianapolis Colts, was breathtaking. The locker room seemed like a mile from the court. Jaws on the floor, we gazed into the cavernous upper deck, realizing that basketball should not be played in a 60,000-seat football stadium. “It was like trying to shoot in a park out in the woods,” says Brian Earl, then Princeton sharpshooter. “There was no depth perception. I was nervous about that because we weren’t going to be doing a ton of driving to the basket.”
The day before first-round games, the NCAA opens shootarounds to the public, at no cost. These sessions, which last an hour for each team, almost always turn into dunking exhibitions. UCLA went before us and gave the crowd an air show. Then we came out and opened up practice with our usual drill, called “star passing.” This drill essentially required the team to stand in a circle around midcourt and toss the ball around for five minutes; this must have been the sort of drill that seemed cutting edge for the students of James Naismith, the PE teacher who founded basketball in 1891.
Talk about a letdown for the fans. After a few more minutes of mind-blowing dribbling up and down the floor, we formed a layup line! We had a few guys who could dunk; Carril, however, would hold an eternal grudge if you dunked in warm-ups but failed to grab a loose ball during practice or the game. So trying a slam wasn’t worth the risk. Princeton forward Chris Doyal, however, was a senior who no longer cared about angering Carril, with whom he had clashed for four years. The floor felt springy, so the husky forward barreled in for a baseline dunk.
“I’ll never forget the f—ing sarcastic clapping,” says Goodrich. “We were [at] the last practice of the night, it was late, and the defending champs has just come on and put on a show. Everyone was leaving, and about four people stuck around to see, ‘Oh, what do these guys do?’ And I just remember these four people clapping in an amused fashion.”
No one figured that 24 hours later, the cheers would be anything but a joke.
There Was Panic
A few hours before tip-off, Miles Clark, a senior who served as Princeton’s team manager, wasn’t expecting much raucous applause for the Tigers. Clark filled the tub in his hotel room with beer and ice. He figured that a few players and coaches would want to give Carril a proper send-off later that night. “I just thought, ‘This is it,'” says Clark, now an attorney in Washington, D.C.
Before Princeton ran out for pregame warm-ups that Thursday night around 9:30 local time, the last of the four first-round games played in Indy on March 14, the Tigers found themselves standing next to the UCLA players in the corridors of the RCA Dome. “I remember thinking about how friggin’ big they were,” says starting guard Henderson, now an assistant coach at Northwestern. “Bad planning on our part.” Looking for any advantage, a few minutes earlier Anthony “Red” Trani, a Princeton stonemason and friend of Carril’s who was part of our traveling contingent — as a son of a steelworker, Carril adored blue-collar pros — had wiggled his fingers and shook his shoulders outside the UCLA locker room, like a bad actor in a horror flick, trying to place an old Italian curse on the Bruins. Carril called it “the whammy.”
Once we arrived on the court, the atmosphere was charged — in UCLA’s favor. “I remember UCLA coming out, and they looked like the Lakers,” says Darren Hite, a Princeton reserve who grew up playing against several UCLA stars in south California. “They just looked like they had been there before.” The UCLA cheerleaders heckled a pair of Princeton sophomores, Brian Douglas and Doyl Burkett, who were two of only four Princeton students in the crowd of 30,000, aside from team members, media and the band, who made the trek out to Indy during midterm-exam week. Douglas, clad in bright orange, freely admits he looked like a geek. “We had so few students, there was a lot of fodder to make fun of,” says Burkett. “They were definitely the national champions — even the cheerleaders had swagger.”
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.
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.”
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.
Russo furiously flipped through the photos. He got it! To Henderson’s right was Bailey, fresh off an air ball, shoulders slumped, mouth open, hands on his shorts, as if he just got ditched at the prom. Russo’s picture may be the most iconic image in Princeton history. The picture ran in papers across the country, and was planted onto countless cups and T-shirts on campus over the next few years.
Carril smiled and waved around the program that he clutched the entire game. His utter delight was such a rare sight: this was a man who once said, when his team was undefeated in the Ivy League, “These are tough times for a pessimist.” He got hugs from Thompson and Scott, two of his future successors as Princeton coach, before greeting Harrick for the postgame handshake. “I’m happy for you,” Harrick told Carril, in a classy move. As he walked toward more postgame adulation, Carril muttered to himself, “Ay-yi-yi-yi-yi.” Later that night, Kevin Gillett, a reserve freshman center, also heard Carril talking under his breath, “I can’t believe they f—ing did it. I can’t believe these kids f—ing did it.”
In the stands, the relatively small contingent of Princeton family members, alums and students — “There might have been 20 of you guys,” teases Miller — bear-hugged each other and shed a few tears. Burkett and Douglas, the two sophomores who drove from Princeton to Indianapolis the previous day, tried to storm the court. “We had done that at the playoff game at Lehigh, and were so naive. ‘Hey, let’s do it here too!'” says Burkett. “But a security guard made it very clear — that just doesn’t happen at the NCAAs.” Douglas, remembering the pregame taunts of the UCLA cheerleaders, returned the favor. “Looking forward to football season?” he asked. One male cheerleader, flanked by a few burly colleagues, was not amused. “I can’t say he was going to kick our ass,” says Burkett. “But that security guard who wouldn’t let us on the floor — he was now our best friend.”
Andrea Joyce, the CBS sideline reporter, interviewed Carril. “I guess that I won’t have to be known as the guy who lost every close one,” Carril told her. Sydney Johnson and Lewullis also lined up to talk to Joyce. But after Joyce interviewed Johnson, and Lewullis prepared to step up to the mike, Joyce threw it back to the studio, leaving Lewullis hanging on national television. He looked like a kid who got nothing for Christmas: “I made the layup. I’m Gabe Lewullis. What about me?” All of Allentown got a kick out of that one. “I will never talk to Andrea Joyce again,” deadpans Lewullis.
Over the next decade, Joyce says more people asked about covering UCLA vs. Princeton than any of the hundreds of other events that she worked, including the Super Bowl and the Olympics. After signing off, Joyce saw Darren Hite, the reserve forward, in the bowels of the RCA Dome, wearing a Princeton basketball T-shirt. She offered Hite some CBS swag in exchange for the shirt. Hite obliged: the sudden cachet of Princeton hoops literally cost Hite the shirt off his back. “All these reporters then gathered around me, wondering what the hell was going on,” Hite says.
After game ended, Gus Johnson took off his headphones. “I said, ‘Man, Waco, Texas; Huntsville, Ala.; Greensboro, N.C.; Washington, D.C.,” says Johnson, rattling off the markets where he had previously worked. “MSG, ESPN and now CBS. I was very aware of the moment, and it’s still probably bigger than any other moment I’ve been a part of while calling the tournament on CBS. I remember saying to myself, ‘Man, if it all ended today, I would at least be able to say I had the opportunity to see college basketball at the greatest level there is.’ I was just happy.”
While Mitch Henderson jumped in the air and Princeton partied, Brandon Loyd, the freshman whom Harrick summoned off the bench to hit a couple of three-pointers in the second half, cried on the UCLA bench. “On the front page of the L.A. Times when we get home, you had Brandon Loyd, snot dribbling out of his nose, tears running out of his eyes, jersey halfway up over his head,” says Kris Johnson. “I mean, we never let him let live that down. Come on, Loyd.” The shooting guard, now a risk consultant and father of three children in Tulsa, Okla., lost his emotions because he came so close to saving the season. “I didn’t have a great freshman year,” says Loyd. “And here I was, I finally helped out, and we weren’t able to win. I’m a Bambi kind of guy, and it was kind of embarrassing.”
The cameras may have caught Loyd crying, but he wasn’t alone. “I vividly remember, after the game, dudes were bawlin'” says Kris Johnson. “Dudes were in tears, throwing jerseys and kicking over Gatorade jugs in the locker room. We have this idea of repeating, we had a really good team, we were talented at all positions. We had tasted it the year before. It was this incredible wake-up call. This is reality. Last year was fantasy.”
In UCLA’s postgame press conference, a student manager from Duke, which had lost to Eastern Michigan earlier in the day, asked Harrick if he felt Carril outcoached him. It was the kind of direct, tough and honest question that any good journalism teacher would encourage. But it’s one that rarely gets asked right after the game, at a press conference, when emotions are still raw. The media knows the coach may snap, and sports reporters, no matter how brave they think they are, don’t like a public tongue-lashing in front of colleagues. But Nick Silvers, the Duke manager, wasn’t worried about the opinion of media peers. Such is the advantage of not being in the press.
Harrick glared at Silvers, now a New York City real estate executive, as time froze. “I’m not sure you are really qualified to ask that question,” a furious Harrick told him. (Silvers did not respond to an interview request.) The clip was replayed dozens of times on television; today, it would have instantly gone viral. Much calmer 15 years later, Harrick can still recall the exchange. “I thought, ‘I’ve been asked stupidest question in the world,'” says Harrick. “Look, it didn’t bother me that much. I didn’t want to go down that road, because if I got outcoached, then after every win can I say I outcoached the other guy? Princeton executed — give them credit for it.”
Carril used to say that only nine-headed players would excite Princeton students about basketball. Though the UCLA game exclusively featured players with one noggin, the Princeton campus exploded anyway. Students poured out onto Prospect Avenue, the school’s social hub. “The celebration was immediate, and dramatic,” wrote the Daily Princetonian. “When a Ryder truck drove through Prospect Avenue, Tiger fans grabbed hold of the still-moving vehicle.” On a pay phone, Gillett phoned his roommate, who held the receiver out the dorm-room window, nearly 250 yards away from Prospect Avenue. Gillett could hear the roars.
Over the next 24 hours, the Princeton players were the toast of Indianapolis. That night, Goodrich grabbed dinner with his family and a few friends at a sports bar: the fellow customers clapped for him. While walking around a mall the next day, strangers asked us for autographs and offered hugs. “It was real messed up,” says Ben Hart, a reserve forward. Even the bench guys and behind-the-scenes staffers received the unusual attention. Jerry Price, the team’s sports-information director, paid for dinner with a Princeton credit card. The waitstaff started asking him questions about the team, the school and Carril. Soon, other diners joined the conversation. “It could have been, ‘Are you Tom Hanks?'” says Price.
The team was flooded with interview requests. Price even put Miles Clark, the team’s manager, on one radio show. The game was front-page news throughout the country. On Good Morning America, host Charlie Gibson, a Princeton alum and big Carril fan, talked about the game at the top of the broadcast, eyes watering. He watched it in his den the night before, yelling and screaming, alone — permitting others in the room would be too disconcerting. “That morning, the game was the only thing on my mind,” says Gibson, who went on to anchor World News with Charles Gibson from 2006 to ’09. “It probably cost us a few viewers in Los Angeles, because I was being such a pain the ass about Princeton basketball.”
In the team hotel, Carril and the coaching staff stayed up until 5 in the morning after the UCLA game, drinking beer and wine. We would play Mississippi State in the second round, two nights later. “Coach was just content,” says Thompson. “We kind of knew that this would probably be it. Mississippi State was just so physically overpowering.”
Lewullis, for his part, would have to wash his clothes in the bathtub over the next few days — he packed for two nights, not four. The next day, we practiced at Butler University, while the Pacers worked out at a gym next door. At one point, Miller walked into the gym and approached Carril. “All my teammates rode me,” says Miller. “I had to go eat crow and shake the man’s hand, the orchestrator’s hand. It was a beautiful performance.”
It would not be repeated the next night, as Princeton fell to Mississippi State, 63-41, in one of the least depressing losses in school history. The team also took solace when Mississippi State, led by 6-ft. 11-in. Erick Dampier, who is still playing in the NBA, for the Miami Heat, and Dontae’ Jones, a first-round pick of the New York Knicks that spring, reached the Final Four.
When UCLA players arrived home, derision awaited in Westwood. “An Ivy League school had beaten the national champs,” says O’Bannon. “How do you go back to the hood and validate that?” UCLA fans, and the media, were particularly harsh on Harrick. Although he had become the first UCLA coach to win a title post-Wooden, he was never fully embraced. “Coming back to L.A. after losing a first-round game is no picnic,” Harrick says today. “It’s brutal — there are piranhas out here. Piranhas.”
That game was Harrick’s last at UCLA. The school fired him the next fall for falsifying an expense report. University of Rhode Island hired him the next season, and the Rams fell one game short of the Final Four. Harrick moved to Georgia in 1999 and turned that program around before allegations of academic fraud involving his son, an assistant, forced him to resign his last college-coaching position.
Despite losing to Princeton, those UCLA teams deserve recognition for their success. The core group from 1996 — Bailey, O’Bannon, Dollar, Kris Johnson and J.R. Henderson — won a championship in 1995. Those players also made it to the Elite Eight in 1997, under 32-year-old rookie coach Steve Lavin, who will coach St. John’s in this year’s Big Dance. Come March, however, the play is inescapable: Lewullis beating O’Bannon for the winning score.
“My son, who is 12 now, goes, ‘Hey, dad, there you are again,'” says O’Bannon, who, like all of the UCLA players I spoke to about this game, was insightful, funny and none too bitter about March 14, 1996. Another clip gets played every March as well: Edney’s 1995 buzzer beater against Missouri. “I have to remind him, ‘Hey, there I am too,” says O’Bannon. “To be a part of history in two different ways, that’s all right by me.”
I ask O’Bannon if he ever met Lewullis. No, he says. I was curious what he might say to him. “Why’d you do it to me?” O’Bannon replies. “How can you do it do me?” O’Bannon laughs. “I’d tell him, ‘Great play.'”
And it’s a play that Lewullis’ coach, Pete Carril, doesn’t love talking about that much anymore. “It’s good for your health to forget about all those wins and all those losses,” he says from his office in Sacramento, where he’s a consultant for the Kings. “And keep your mind on what you’re doing now.” Sure, Carril is still thrilled that he went out on top back in 1996, though he quickly adds, “If we didn’t have to play another game, and lose, it would have been better.”
With another March Madness set for tip-off, Carril say he doesn’t watch a ton of college hoops these days, though he does offer some advice for those teams trying to pull a Princeton. “It goes back to my high school days,” he says. “You walked into the football stadium, and there was a sign there I never forgot: ‘If you think you can’t, you won’t.’ That’s all there is to it. Know the strong points of your team, and your weak points, and what the other team is going to try to exploit. Hold onto your guts. Don’t let them force you out of what you want to do. Of course, that takes a lot of mental courage. There’s physical and mental courage, and we weren’t very high on the physical part. But on the mental part, no one forced us out of doing what we knew we had to do to win.”