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

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

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.

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