The NCAA men’s basketball tournament comes back next week after a sad hiatus brought about by a different madness last March, one that has stretched into the following year and beyond.
The coming tournament, played in six venues either in or near Indianapolis, reflects a recent national reality that is both cramped and distant. We are together more than ever in some ways, yet equally as isolated. The buildings themselves will be close to one another, but the fans within will be spaced generously and whatever is gained by the resumption of the tradition also acknowledges what is lost from the crowded, sweaty, loud communion played to the accompaniment of the shrill brass and thumping percussion of the clustered pep bands.
Twenty-five years ago, beginning with games on Thursday, March 14, 1996, I was in Indianapolis for the start of another tournament. It wasn’t necessarily my idea, and I know how that sounds, but the first round of the NCAA Tournament can be a lot less stressful from the couch than press row.
I had been in Indianapolis for a week covering USA Swimming’s Olympic Trials, leading up to the Summer Games in Atlanta beginning that July. That’s not terrific work, either, to be honest. You end up with a lot of thin stories and smelling of chlorine.
The big news came when Kristine Quance, a 10-time national champion, was disqualified from her best event, the 400-meter individual medley, for a slightly sloppy turn from the backstroke to breaststroke leg in a heat she won by five seconds. Quance was average in the backstroke and superior in the breaststroke, so the slight delay in flipping to her stomach probably slowed her down, but an over-officious turn judge made the call and that was that. It was the equivalent of LeBron James being ejected from an NBA playoff game because his jersey came untucked.
That was the best of it from a news standpoint. All the stories had been played back by the tire ads in the sports section, and I was very ready to leave Indianapolis. All that could extend my trip was Selection Sunday. The RCA Dome was a host to first- and second-round games in the Southeast Regional and that could be a convenient thing for The Inquirer.
These were slightly lusher times in the print newspaper business, and when the NCAA selections and city assignments were handed out, it was determined we would send Stephen A. Smith to Orlando with 7th-seeded Temple; Ray Parrillo to Providence with 5th-seeded Penn State; Mike Jensen and Diane Pucin to Milwaukee with 3rd-seeded Villanova; and Joe Juliano and Bill Lyon to Albuquerque with 12th-seeded Drexel. (We opted to cover the St. Joseph’s NIT opener at Iona with a stringer. I have no idea if we ran out of money or people.)
What did that leave for the Indianapolis correspondent? He almost got away clean, but 13th -seeded Princeton was heading there for a first-round game against 4th-seeded UCLA, the defending national champion. Princeton had always been sort of local for us in terms of coverage, but also sort of not local. The Tigers, however, had won the Ivy League only after a brutal struggle to the end with Penn, and there was thought to be residual interest.
The Quakers won their last five league games, including two against Princeton, to force a tie at the end of the regular season. In a one-game playoff at Lehigh, the teams grappled into overtime before Princeton slipped away with the game and the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Afterward, on the locker room blackboard, coach Pete Carril, in his 29th season with Princeton, wrote, “I am retiring,” and walked out of the room.
So, yeah, there was that. If someone could be on hand to chronicle the end of Carril’s legendary career as the Tigers got paddled out in the first round, it was worth doing.
Covering the first round of the NCAA Tournament on site is at once exhilarating and exhausting. Typically, there are games at noon and 2 p.m., and two more at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. If the assignment is solely for one local team, that’s what you write and the schedule is moot.
In this case at Indianapolis, however, barring a late surprise, the choices were greater. The office wanted one of the games to be a written as a lengthier feature, with a paragraph or two on the other three games tacked at the bottom. It doesn’t take an Ivy League education to prefer focusing on one of the earlier games, saving just light lifting for deadline.
With that in mind, the second game of the day, an Eastern Michigan win over Duke was perfect. It wasn’t really an upset, an 8-vs.-9 game, but Duke had made the Final Four in six of the previous eight years and hadn’t lost in the first round since 1955.
Even in a down year — a slew of injuries forced the Blue Devils to start a former walk-on poached from the soccer team — who doesn’t like to read about a Duke loss? As a bonus, the winner was led by a 5-foot-5 guard named Earl Boykins, who was generously listed at 5-7. Coach Ben Braun considered this less a fabrication than a compromise. “He wanted to be 5-8,” Braun said.
If you can’t write that one, it’s time for a new profession. Everything was humming along just fine. That would be written, and there would be plenty of time after the final game of the night to attach those last paragraphs following Princeton-UCLA and then leisurely gather material for a sentimental follow story the next day on Carril’s exit, which, knowing the perpetually cranky coach, would probably be about as sentimental as stepping in dog poop. Nevertheless.
There was, of course, only one possible way this neat plan could be derailed, and that was if Princeton were to upset UCLA, an outcome that would take place at about 11:30 p.m. and cause every deadline writer’s hair to immediately burst into flames. But what were the chances?
Well, UCLA wasn’t as good at its national championship incarnation — minus Ed O’Bannon, Tyus Edney and George Zidak from the previous season — but Charles O’Bannon remained, along with three others who would eventually play in the NBA. The Bruins had one of the most potent offenses in the tournament, averaging 77.4 points and shooting 53 percent from the field. Plus, they were ticked off, believing the Tournament Committee had disrespected them with a 4-seed and shunted them off from the West Regional in Albuquerque or Tempe to the godforsaken hinterlands of Indiana to play a bunch of overmatched brainiacs.
To be sure, UCLA was very good at the game of basketball. The problem, as other teams could have instructed, is that Princeton didn’t play basketball. The Tigers played water torture. A fast break was when point guard Mitch Henderson walked the ball quickly up the court. Every second of the shot clock was squeezed out like a dish rag, both offensively and, hopefully, when the other team had the ball as well.
“Everybody likes to run, but when we do, mostly good things don’t happen,” said Henderson, who is currently the Princeton head coach.
The offense was a whirling array of passes around the perimeter while players used an intricate system of screens and back cuts to seek an easy basket before settling for something else. On defense, Carril preferred a trapping man-to-man with lots of help and switches to keep opponents off-balance.
In Princeton’s previous four Tournament appearances, the Tigers had lost to Georgetown, Arkansas, Villanova and Syracuse — by a combined total of 15 points. The loss to Georgetown in 1989, with Princeton as a 16-seed, was by a single point and the Tigers had a shot at the end to win. It would be another 29 years before a 16-seed finally broke through against a 1-seed, when UMBC beat Virginia in 2018.
Princeton was not to be taken lightly in this setting and perhaps UCLA didn’t, but it didn’t matter. Carril, much to his disdain, installed a 1-2-2 zone defense for the game, needing to offset UCLA’s enormous advantage in speed, talent and athleticism. He instructed the Tigers to ignore offensive rebounds and scurry back on defense as soon as a shot went up. Shortening the game and keeping the Bruins in half-court offense was the only chance.
In the working press area adjacent to the court, most writers were finishing up the last details of a day’s work when the fourth game began. Only a few were at courtside to witness the start of what was assumed to be a foregone conclusion. At halftime, when the horn sounded and the announcer gave the score as “UCLA 19, Princeton 18,” everyone in the working area picked up his or her head like deer when the first branch snaps in the forest.
The courtside press seats were packed for the second half. I played a furious game of catch-up just in case, getting 300 or 400 words on the first half into the machine from the play-by-play and box score. It could be wasted effort, if the possible upset fell short, but there was no alternative. After that, it was a sweaty ride to the finish, while juggling calls from the office, where people were clearly not happy with the potential need to remake pages at that late hour, and I am fairly certain were blaming me for it.
UCLA scratched out a seven-point lead with six minutes to play and that felt like the inevitable denouement, but the Bruins never managed another point. Princeton caught up and, with just seconds left, Gabe Lewullis scored on a backdoor cut and perfect bounce pass from Steve Goodrich that left O’Bannon flat-footed. A final UCLA shot went off the rim and it was over, 43-41. Princeton players claimed they heard Carril mutter, “I can’t believe they [bleeping] did it.”
But they did, in a game during which they shot just 37 percent from the floor, had 13 fewer rebounds than their opponents, and made just one free throw. If the outcome was beautiful to behold, the game itself was something less.
The winning play was classic Princeton, of course, but so classic that Ivy League opponents were rarely surprised by it. UCLA wasn’t quite as well-schooled.
“Back home, we don’t get away with backdoor plays,” Princeton captain Sydney Johnson said. “We might have had a couple all year.”
The next hour or so was crazy. The first-edition game story had to be topped and sent immediately. Then it was a mad dash through the stadium to find the locker room and gather quotes and color for the next edition, which was already looming. My recollection is I filed three versions of the Princeton game story, which did nothing for my state of mind and very little for Earl Boykins’ presence in The Inquirer the next morning.
There was a lot of David-and-Goliath writing in the work room that night and references to Hickory beating South Bend Central in Hoosiers, the 1986 movie owing to the 1954 Indiana State High School Championship when Milan (enrollment 161) beat powerhouse Muncie Central. I was actually sitting close enough to be wearing the same shoes as a writer who typed that Princeton is a school that “puts eggheads on the court and goose eggs on the scoreboard.” I ask forgiveness. It was a difficult night.
The reality is that Princeton’s win was more symbolic than historic, despite the hyperbole that emerged from it. The Tigers were a very large David and, as it turned out, UCLA a quite small Goliath.
Previously in modern NCAA Tournament history, a 14-seed had won a first-round game in 1986 (Cleveland State over Indiana) and a 15-seed in 1991 (Richmond over Syracuse). A 13-seed beating a 4-seed was nothing groundbreaking. What lent power to the upset, however, was that it was Princeton — erudite, eternal underdog on the court — and it came at a time the power conferences were harrumphing that perhaps automatic bids shouldn’t be so automatic for the champions of lesser leagues. That year, Minnesota of the Big Ten and Providence of the Big East both finished with significantly higher RPIs than almost all of the automatic qualifiers, and squawked loudly when left just outside the at-large bubble.
If sails were filling to change the direction of the NCAA Tournament, Princeton took the air from them by beating UCLA. That win might have made it possible for 13-seed Mercer to beat Duke in 2013, 15-seed Lehigh to beat Duke in 2012, 15-seed Florida Gulf Coast to beat Georgetown in 2013; and, of course, UMBC over Virginia.
“Let’s win this’un for all the small schools that never had a chance to get here,” Hickory’s Merle Webb said in the movie. It wasn’t exactly the same for Princeton, but the 1996 upset made sure that chance would be protected. (Less poetically, the following year Indiana abandoned its all-comers high school state champion system and divided schools by size into four divisions. The possibility of another Milan Miracle expired along with the change.)
The win was Carril’s 525th and last. Princeton lost by 22 points in the second round to a Mississippi State team led by 6-11 center Erick Dampier, who would soon embark on a 15-season NBA career, and a silky scoring forward named Dontae’ Jones.
During the UCLA game, Mississippi State coach Richard Williams scouted his next opponent with a growing feeling of both awe and dread, although the latter proved unnecessary.
“I think they play the game the way it was intended to be played,” Williams said of Princeton.
Carril, ever the realist, snorted at the notion. “I guess if he really believed that, he’d play that way, too,” Carril said.
Elsewhere, Villanova, Temple and Drexel all lost in the second round of the tournament as well. St. Joe’s played longer into March than any other Philadelphia-area team, advancing to the championship game of the NIT in Madison Square Garden before losing to Nebraska.
“It’s the next guy’s turn,” the retiring Carril said in his Indianapolis benediction speech, which wasn’t much more extensive than that. He went on to be an assistant coach for a number of years with Rick Adelman in Sacramento before retiring to Bethlehem. He turned 90 years old last July.
Carril’s final win was wonderful and fitting and a fist in the air for all those small schools that never do get the same experience. The rim in the RCA Dome was indeed exactly 10 feet off the floor, just like back in Jadwin Gymnasium. The coach never bothered to mention that. Any player that didn’t know it wouldn’t have gotten into Princeton in the first place.
It was worth hanging around Indianapolis to see that game unfold, and it couldn’t have been better even if it were played at noon. The writing might have been, though.
Bob Ford was a reporter and columnist for The Inquirer from 1987 to 2020.