March 17, 2011


Princeton vs. UCLA: Reflections on a Historic Upset (Sean Gregory, 3/16/11, TIME)

"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. [...]

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 (Read "The Power of Pete Carril.")

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.

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Posted by at March 17, 2011 5:06 PM

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