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

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.”

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