The Game That Saved

MARCH
Madness

Princeton’s near-upset of Georgetown in a 1989 first-round game made sure Cinderella would always get invited to the ball

By Sean Gregory and Alexander Wolff

Photos by Mitchell Layton

Manny Millan/Sports Illustrated (Mourning and Mueller); John W. McDonough/Sports Illustrated (floor)
The fans in the Providence Civic Center on St. Patrick’s Day in 1989 got more than their money’s worth in a first-round game for the ages.
Courtesy of Jon Solomon

I
see the rim. I see the rim. A quarter century later, Bob Scrabis can still see the rim.

Seven seconds remained in that first round 1989 NCAA tournament game between Princeton and Georgetown when Scrabis, the Tigers’ captain and lone senior, raised up to shoot the basketball. Before the game Scrabis’ own coach, the chronic pessimist Pete Carril, had set the betting line. “I think we’re a billion-to-one to win the whole tournament,” he said. “To beat Georgetown, we’re only 450 million to one.”

Yet Carril’s 16th-seeded Princeton Tigers trailed the Hoyas, the most dominant and polarizing brand in college hoops, by a single point, 50-49, when Scrabis dribbled off a screen from his center, Kit Mueller, near the top of the key. Mueller’s defender, freshman Alonzo Mourning, still lurked in the foul lane. “Mourning hadn’t been coming out for any ball screens,” says Carril, who figured the Georgetown center wasn’t about to change his habits.

“Look how far away he is,” Scrabis says, rewatching the moment on video today. “I’m a foot behind the three-point line.”

I got it, Scrabis thought. A rapt St. Patrick’s Day audience, the largest up until then for a college basketball game on a young network called ESPN, was going to remember Bob Scrabis forever. For the first time a No. 16 was going to beat a No. 1, and Scrabis would be the guy to do it. As he says, “It’s the shot you want when you’re playing by yourself in the driveway, dreaming of something like this.

“But 6’10” guys aren’t hiding in the hedges.”

Georgetown's Alonzo Mourning proved to be the difference, finishing with 21 points, including the game-winning free throw, despite the efforts of Mueller (00) and Lapin to contain the future NBA star.
Manny Millan/Sports Illustrated

Mourning pounced from the foul line to swat Scrabis’ shot away. Loose ball, five seconds left. “It’s just a scramble,” says Scrabis. “But I was like, Oh s---, that was my chance, that was my chance. It’s a feeling of deflation, even going after the loose ball. What’s happening here?”

Mueller fell among three Georgetown players in pursuit of the ball. “I’ll always remember the crunch,” says Mueller. “A collision of people, the stadium screaming, everyone going for that loose ball.”

The ball skittered toward the sideline, where Georgetown’s Sam Jefferson chased it down. He tried to call timeout, but an official ruled his foot on the line. Princeton ball.

Now one second remained in the game, the game that saved March Madness.

T
oday the NCAA tournament, which tips off on March 20, is a multi-billion dollar enterprise with cultural cachet to rival the Super Bowl. During its first week millions of Americans, many of whom haven’t watched a second of college basketball all season, fill out brackets in office pools and try to pick the likeliest upsets. They let economic productivity go all to hell, cheering for schools they’ve never heard of, following the action on smartphones and tablets as well as the TV at the corner bar.

But 25 years ago some underdogs risked extinction. As the tournament boomed through the 1980s, more and more schools began to seek Division I status. They coalesced into leagues in hopes of landing NCAA tournament bids that would deliver exposure and revenue. Eventually the major conferences, determined to freeze the field at 64 teams and grab the highest share of the money that went with 34 at-large bids, became fed up. Their representatives on the basketball committee hatched a plan to deny each of the weakest two conferences an automatic bid. Moreover, they proposed to pick the outcasts on Selection Sunday, which would strip a bubble conference’s postseason tournament of much of its drama. To extend the metaphor trotted out each March, a couple of would-be Cinderellas wouldn’t even leave their charwoman’s posts for the ball.

It didn’t help that the Ivy League, for example, had sent teams to the three previous tournaments that lost by an average of 40 points.

The Princeton-Georgetown game halted that discussion. It also drew a huge rating that helped convince CBS executives that their network, not a cable outfit that reached barely half of U.S. homes, should air the first-round games at the heart of so much of the event’s charm. By the end of 1989, CBS would sign a seven-year, $1 billion deal to carry the entire tournament. That contract would expose March Madness to a broader audience, and set the event on a course of exponential growth that led to the most recent deal, a 2010 agreement with CBS and Turner for $10.8 billion over 14 years. “The Princeton-Georgetown game happened, and suddenly people said, There’s merit to these people being in,” says former ESPN programming executive Tom Odjakjian. “When CBS decided to do the first two days, that gave the tournament even more credibility.

Adds Rich Ensor, commissioner of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference: “The fact of the matter is, it all would have gone away if the powers that be had had their way.”

Chapter 1

Scratchy
Nipples

Like the Big East conference in which they played, Georgetown and its coach, John Thompson, steadily grew in stature during the 1980s. Center Patrick Ewing led the Hoyas to an NCAA championship in 1984, and by March 1989 the program sat astride the sport, having won a Big East regular season title before easily beating three teams in the Big East tournament.

Jim O’Connell, AP national college basketball writer: “Coming in, they were it. This was going to be Alonzo Mourning’s Patrick Ewing year. Except for [John Thompson’s] championship team, this might have been the best he had.”

Markhum Stansbury, Hoyas team manager: “At some point during the season, me and [guard and Big East Player of the Year] Charles Smith had this little thing. Before each game I’d go out to the court in pre-game warmups, watch the opponent shoot around, then go to the locker room to report back. ‘Smitty, you’re not going to believe this,’ I’d say. ‘They actually showed up.’”

WATCH VIDEO
Mark Tillmon, Georgetown junior guard

The Hoyas’ coaching staff knew better. Craig Esherick, Georgetown assistant: “I remember being scared to death. You can tell everybody in five days of practice, Watch the backdoor, watch the backdoor. But they do a bunch of stuff in their early offense to get you out of thinking about watching the backdoor. When you were playing Carril, it didn’t matter how good you were. The style of play scared the crap out of you.”

O’Connell: “During the days before the game Thompson is telling us, These guys are good, we’re going to have to play great to beat them. ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah. Whatever, Thompson.’”

John Thompson: “I knew Pete’s reputation, knew that he was a good coach. But I was more impressed with what I knew about him as a man. That’s why I let my son go to school there.”

John Thompson III, current Georgetown coach, who played for Carril from 1984-85 through ’87-88: “It’s just a terrible matchup from my vantage point. One team had to lose—and just knowing this was the end of the year, you work so hard to get here—you didn’t want it to be at the expense of the other.”

Thompson had begun working as a trainee at Ford and was living on his own, which left him alone to sort out his conflicted emotions. He would phone with encouragement for Scrabis, the former teammate who, he told anyone who would listen, would be a senior starter for “Pops” if Scrabis had spent his four years at Georgetown: “Did I give [the Hoyas’ coaching staff] the scouting report? No," says Thompson. "I’m glad they didn’t ask. If asked, I probably would have. Fortunately, I was not asked.”

After four seasons of watching other Ivy League teams go on to the NCAA tournament, Carril and his staff were relieved to have beaten Harvard on the last night of the season to win the conference title.

George Leftwich, Princeton freshman point guard: “Everyone’s happy, Carril’s f------ happy. He was miserable all year, because he hadn’t won a title in forever.”

WATCH VIDEO
The Tigers celebrate their win over Harvard.
Courtesy of Princeton University

Chuck Yrigoyen, Princeton radio color man: “The ride back from Harvard after we won the league was the single greatest night I remember. We’d lost at Penn and lost at Dartmouth and thought we were going to a playoff. I’d never seen coach like he was after beating Harvard. The expression on his face was something between hysteria and a heart attack.”

Yrigoyen whipped out a handheld cassette recorder on the bus: “I was in broadcast mode and decided to chronicle our ride back. Let’s just say there was alcohol involved.”

Bill Futornick, Princeton manager: “We stopped off at one of those package stores. I bought the beer.”

Matt Lapin, Princeton junior forward: “Everybody was very intoxicated on the way home. It was really a great sort of memory.”

Carril: “They can’t fire me now, huh? Can they? Noooooo.”

During a road trip earlier that season, the Princeton players had caught a made-for-TV movie featuring Judge Reinhold as a kid dropped from a high-school team. Chris Marquardt, Princeton reserve: “He writes a poem or something about being a step too slow. That’s what Carril says about all of us. That’s what the outside world thinks of us. So we adopted it as our theme song for the back of the bus.”

Marquardt and three teammates came up with lyrics for each player, and their refrain remains on Yrigoyen’s cassette tape from the celebratory bus ride: Step too slow; A step too slow. Coach would run, but we’re a step too slow. A step too slow; And a step too slow. The back of the bus boys, a step too slow.

A Step Too Slow
On the bus ride back from Harvard, Princeton players made up a song.
Audio courtesy of Chuck Yrigoyen

CBS revealed the tournament brackets on Selection Sunday, soon after Georgetown had routed Syracuse in the Big East final. Bill Carmody, Princeton assistant: “So I go over to Chuck’s Café. You got the blue cheese, you got the celery, maybe a couple of little salads. This is a great night, you know you’re in. So I got it all laid out, it’s perfect, probably a few pops there too, and boom, the very first thing: East Regional. Providence, Rhode Island. Georgetown-Princeton. I didn’t eat a wing.”

Jerry Doyle, Princeton sophomore guard: “Before the show came on, we said, ‘Hope we get a nice trip out of it. Hope we don’t have to ride on a bus. And hope we don’t have to play Georgetown.’”

WATCH VIDEO
Princeton coach Pete Carril

In practice, Princeton’s coaches had the starters go five-on-six to simulate Georgetown’s pressure defense.

Kit Mueller: “Everyone tried to pass this off as, Oh, it’s just another game, we can play with these guys. Then I was at a side basket with [assistant] Jan van Breda Kolff, and he was holding up a broom to simulate Mourning’s reach. And I was throwing hook shots over Jan van Brenda Kolff holding a broom. Yeah, it’s just another game. See if you can make a 15-foot hook shot over a broom. The absurdity of that.”

Chris Marquardt: “When we were role-playing Georgetown, I think I was Dikembe [Mutombo, Georgetown’s 7’2” sophomore]. We crushed the starters to the point where coach Carril was getting really furious. The backup squad, not mighty Georgetown, was just killing them. It was not the most confidence-building event.”

Scrabis: “We really weren’t cognizant of the automatic bids being in jeopardy until we got up to Providence. The media started asking us all these questions. I was pretty opinionated and had a little chip on my shoulder. We had beaten South Carolina, other scholarship schools. I was not shy about saying it was the wrong thing. Who wants to see Ohio State play Maryland in the first round of the tournament?

“The underclassmen had decided to get their heads shaved. So here we are at the shootaround, with cotton warmups, flattops, and we’re doing star passing, where we throw the ball to each other in a circle. It added to our character, I guess.”

WATCH VIDEO
Bob Scrabis, Princeton senior captain

Jim Lane, Princeton reserve: “We had warm-up sweats that were as tight as the third grade white polyester suit my mother made me. Georgetown had a Nike contract with breakaway pants. We had these shooting shirts where the sleeves only made it three-quarters of the way down our arms. They weighed like 20 pounds. They were hard to get on, hard to get off. They really scratched my nipples.”

Mike Gorman, who did the play-by-play: “They looked like the high school team that stumbled into the wrong gym.”

In his pregame comments from ESPN’s studios in Bristol, Conn., analyst Dick Vitale ridiculed the matchup: “If Princeton can beat Georgetown, I am going to hitchhike to Providence .... I’m gonna be their ball boy in their next game, and then I’m gonna change into a Princeton cheerleading uniform. And I’m going to lead all the cheers. Let’s go Tigers! Let’s go Tigers! Never happen.

WATCH VIDEO
Dick Vitale’s pregame promise

Gorman, on the air: “Welcome, everyone, to Providence, Rhode Island. The entire country now [has] a reason to root for Princeton, so we can see Dick Vitale here in a cheerleader’s uniform come Sunday.”

In Bristol, Odjakjian had conferred with his boss, Loren Matthews: “I’m telling Loren there’s a compelling David-and-Goliath thing here. If Princeton can keep it close, this would be our highest-rated game, would get people’s attention. Sure, there’s the risk of a blowout. But the upside on this was bigger than the others.

“Loren said, Ah, it’s your Princeton bias. [Odjakjian had worked in the Princeton athletic department.] But he eventually agreed. So we asked the NCAA to put it in primetime, and we picked it as one of our five live games.”

The day before, another 16th seed, East Tennessee State, had come within a point of top-seeded Oklahoma. But Odjakjian notes that the Oklahoma-ETSU game was shown on tape delay at 1:30 a.m., where it drew an audience barely one-tenth the size that Georgetown vs. Princeton would: “I’m convinced that if Princeton-Georgetown hadn’t been live on ESPN in primetime, it wouldn’t have had the same impact.”

Chapter 2

Puppies in
the Game

Everything about the scene in the Providence Civic Center seemed to highlight Princeton’s role as interlopers, from the plaid jackets and straw boaters of the band, to the pirouettes of the Tiger mascot. Marquardt nonetheless turned to a teammate on the bench right before tipoff and made an audacious remark: “Wouldn’t it be cool if we were leading at the first TV timeout?”

Mourning won the tap and Princeton sat back in a tight 1-2-2 zone, the defensive tactic the Tigers would employ nearly the entire game. For its part, Georgetown started with token full-court pressure, but played more aggressively in its half-court man-to-man. On Princeton’s first possession Mueller found Scrabis on a backdoor cut through the lane. Georgetown’s John Turner blocked his shot with ease.

Scrabis: “There was a little bit of, O.K., s---, I hope this doesn’t go on all night.”

A half-minute later the 6-foot-7 Mueller unfurled a hook over Mourning. The shot banked off the backboard for the first basket of the game.

Mueller: “I got one of those broomstick hooks early on. The first dribble, I was kind of tentative. Then Mourning almost kind of opens up for me.”

Carril: “I believe in the hook shot by the way. It’s just not modern enough for the modern player. If you’re a pivot guy and you want to score down there, why wouldn’t you want to copy Kareem? Or Bill Russsell? Or what’s his name from UCLA—Walton? I really don’t think they want to do that. Each guy thinks he knows best how he should play. What do they call that? Relativism?”

On Georgetown’s next possession Scrabis stripped the ball from Mourning in the post, sending it out-of-bounds. Mourning smiled.

They kind of lulled us to sleep with the backdoor cuts and running the shot clock down. As soon as we slipped up defensively, they took advantage.
— Alonzo Mourning, Georgetown center

Mueller: “It’s almost like a joke that he got blocked by one of us. He just got scored on at the other end, and he’s laughing.”

Mourning: “We did kind of take them for granted.”

Princeton’s plan on offense was to slow the game down. As a center who could handle and pass the ball, essential skills for a big man in the Tigers’ system, Mueller conducted the offense from the high post. Princeton’s guards and forwards would sprint toward the baseline and out to the wings and repeat the pattern. All the motion was designed to induce Georgetown to let its guard down. Mourning had little interest in venturing beyond the three-point line and largely left Mueller alone.

Carril: “You had to do something to take some minutes off the clock, to shorten the game.”

Ron Thompson, Georgetown reserve, son of coach John Thompson: “How we play defensively is great for Princeton. We get up, we pressure the ball, we pressure the wings. It lends itself to getting backdoors. Our instincts, our motor—we’ve been trained for 10 months. So as much as Pops may have screamed, ‘Slough off and get in the lane,’ it’s kind of hard to change what you are for one game.”

Mourning: “They kind of lulled us to sleep with the backdoor cuts and running the shot clock down. As soon as we slipped up defensively, they took advantage.”

As the Tigers did a minute later, when they ran a play called “center-forward.” Doyle reversed his dribble, tossed the ball to Mueller, on the elbow, who found the forward, Scrabis, cutting from the wing. This time Mourning goaltended the shot. 4-0 Princeton.

WATCH VIDEO
TIME’s Sean Gregory explains the Princeton offense

Turner scored in the post for Georgetown’s first bucket; then Scrabis tried a lefty layup on a drive. Goaltending on Mourning, for a second time. 6-2 Princeton.

Mourning, who would soon become one of the NBA’s great shotblockers, had gotten a piece of Scrabis’ last two shots. Turner had blocked the first. But the Princeton captain somehow had four points to show for it all. Notre Dame would play Vanderbilt later that night in the second game, and the green-clad, red-faced Fighting Irish fans helped fill the building with a happy buzz.

Jerry Doyle: “After the first minute there was a realization that as great as they were, they were basketball players just like us. And there were five of them. Just like us. And we could compete. ”

Mourning soon delivered his first basket, a jump hook in the paint. As the game progressed, he would find more and more shots around the basket. Less than a minute later, however, it was Doyle who scored in the lane, with a wonderfully funky shot: Dribbling from the right wing into the middle of the lane with the shot clock running down, he left his feet, and with his momentum carrying his body to the left, somehow scooped an underhand shot with his right hand over Mourning’s outstretched arm.

Doyle (5) and his fellow Tigers weren’t afraid to take it to the hole against the 6’ 10” Mourning (33), who had seven blocks but couldn’t get to every shot.

Doyle: “I just reacted to the fact that we had a couple of seconds to get free. And I was aware that they had this brilliant seven-foot center. So if I was going to get anywhere close to the basket, I was going to have to throw it pretty high. It kind of all happened at once.”

Scrabis: “It’s like, Oh s---, Jerry’s driving, he’s going into Mourning, what’s going to happen here? And it’s like this dipsy doodle.”

Mark Tillmon: “I mean, what can you do about that? If they take shots like that all game, and hit ’em, they deserve to win. If you let the little puppy into the game, they can think they can make anything. Everything they throw up is magic”

It wasn’t just Princeton’s offense giving the Hoyas fits. The Tigers’ zone forced Georgetown’s perimeter players—particularly Smith, who would finish with only four points—to settle for outside shots.

After Doyle’s scoop, Leftwich collapsed on Turner in the post, deflecting a pass to force the third turnover. Carril’s instructions to his guards on defense were simple: Stay in front of your man and try to get a hand on passes into the post.

Carril: “I’ve never believed in forcing a guy to one side or another. You keep your body in front of your man, and see if you know something about him, five, six, seven minutes into a game. And, use your hands. A coach sometimes says, Don’t reach. No, get your hands in there. It’s a philosophical point from Thomas Jefferson. He called it discretion through education. If a guy can’t do something, don’t take away his chance to do it. Show him how to do it instead. So we worked on that. Oh yeah—don’t foul him. Dig in there. Your hand goes in there like a snake’s tongue.”

Georgetown soon switched from its man-to-man to a 1-3-1 zone, to better close off the backdoor. A few possessions later Mueller tried another hook. This time, no goaltending: Mourning batted the ball toward the Georgetown cheerleaders behind the baseline. He snarled and shook his head.

Mueller: “I needed to get over the broomstick there. The funny thing about that is, look at Mourning’s reaction. He blocked my shot into the stands, but he’s mad he didn’t catch it or block it to a teammate. That’s when you’re really insulted. [Laughs].”

Mourning: “I would tell you this. Coach Thompson brought Bill Russell in to speak to me and Dikembe. And he’s like, Listen, if you block a shot into the stands, the opposing team does nothing but get the ball back. And he said if you have the ability to block shots, why not keep it inbounds? He said don’t swing at it. Direct it. I’ve never forgotten that.”

On the Princeton bench, Marquardt smiled. At the first TV timeout, 14:03 left, Princeton had doubled up on Georgetown 8-4.

Scrabis: “I was thinking, O.K., when is it coming? When is the big push coming?”

The celebrated Princeton offense disrupted the Hoyas’ defense and led to backdoor layups like this one by Scrabis.

Tillmon: “I thought we probably could have pressed a little more.”

Kemit Mawakana, (formerly Sam Jefferson, Georgetown reserve forward): “We had earned our athletic arrogance. ‘We are Georgetown.’ What happened to that?”

Thompson: “We want to press everybody. But we make adjustments. We had a good defensive team. We were capable of playing fast, we were capable of playing slow.”

Coming out of the TV timeout, Carril made his first substitution, sending in junior forward Matt Lapin, a Washington, D.C., native who had attended John Thompson’s basketball camp as a kid. Just two months before, Lapin had barely left the bench in Princeton’s annual post-exam period, pre-Ivy League tuneup against a Division III opponent. Lapin was stuck in a horrible shooting slump and thinking of quitting the team.

Carril: “He comes into the office, gives me the reasons, this and that. I said, ‘Matt, down there on that side court are some of your best friends. Get the hell out of here and go play.’ Next time we played Penn, he hit a bunch of threes. Naturally, I had to remind him every time I see him. You still want to quit, Slapper?”

Lapin: “It’s true, my mental state was really bad. But basically what happened was I stopped looking over at the bench whenever I took a shot. Of course he’s going crazy. Fine, and if he’s pissed, he’ll pull me.”

Lapin bumped his three-point percentage up to 42% by the end of that season, and a year later would shoot 53.4%, tops in the nation. And here a guy who could barely earn minutes against Muhlenberg, who entered the tournament averaging 4.9 points per game, was lighting up Georgetown.

After the first minute there was a realization that as great as they were, they were basketball players just like us. And there were five of them just like us. And we could compete.
— Jerry Doyle, Princeton guard

In the first half he nailed a three from the left baseline. He threw a perfect bounce pass through the Georgetown trap to a wide-open Doyle for a layup. He found himself wide open under the basket when two Hoyas failed to switch. He got lucky on a few more: Mueller fumbled a pass that found its way into Lapin’s hands, whereupon he put in a gawky layup over Turner; when Doyle tapped a loose ball Lapin’s way in the middle of the foul lane, he pushed up and in a twelve footer with Mourning right in front of him.

Lapin: “Carril’s instructions were as soon as a shot goes up, get back. We were not going for offensive rebounds. Then I get the rebound, and I shot it right away. I mean, what the hell? And it just kind of happened. I was like, screw it, I had a shot. I didn’t even realize it was Mourning. And the place went crazy, right?”

After several plays, Lapin pumped his fists, firing up the crowd and himself.

Lapin: “I was a demonstrative player. I wish I wasn’t now, in hindsight. I was caught up in the whole moment.”

And as Princeton built its lead to seven, 28-21, near the end of the first half, Lapin’s enthusiasm was spreading around the country.

Teri Schindler, producer for the broadcast: “With four minutes left in the half, the truck [was] quiet. We were all three inches away from our monitors. What’s happening here? Going into halftime, we were hyperventilating.”

Tom Odjakjian: “I can still visualize the scene in the ESPN studios. Just the buzz, like, Do you believe that? Oh, boy. We’ve got to show a highlight from this other game? No, no, we can’t go away from the Princeton game. Do we have to take a commercial?”

Jerry Canning, central New Jersey resident: “My dad was out of town and my mom was leading a prayer group, so I had to watch the game by myself in another room. Every few minutes I’d pop my head into the prayer group and hold up cards with the score or pantomime the latest updates. It was like, Mom, can you believe this? She was into it. All these theologians in the prayer group couldn’t care less.”

WATCH VIDEO
John Thompson III

With nine seconds left in the first half, and Princeton up 28-21, the Tigers inbounded the ball with a chance to push the lead to double digits. Lapin raised one finger in the air.

On ESPN, Gorman took note: “Matt Lapin is walking around the court with number one held up. I hope that’s a defense … I don’t know if I’d start waving number one fingers in the Hoyas’ faces right yet.”

Lapin: “When I saw that on television later, I was like, What are they talking about? I was just reminding the guys we were going to hold for one shot. They think I’m taunting Georgetown? Come on.”

With one second left a frustrated Smith slapped Scrabis and was whistled for an intentional foul. The Princeton senior sank one of two. Halftime score: Princeton 29, Georgetown 21. The crowd roared for the Tigers as both teams headed for their locker rooms.

With the improbable halftime score on display, the increasingly real possibility of a historic upset hung over the Civic Center court.

Gorman kicked the game back to the ESPN studio, where the nation saw a TV first: Dickie V on mute.

Studio host John Saunders: “Before halftime I said, ‘Dick, let’s have this astonished look on our faces, and just be speechless.’ I’m thinking of the impact it’s going to have, to have Dick Vitale not say anything. I didn’t realize how big that was going to be. All these years later people still talk about it. Princeton actually got Dick Vitale to not talk.

Saunders and Vitale stared at each other for several seconds before Saunders broke in: “The only thing I can say, Dick, is that the head of the Princeton cheerleading squad just called …” Vitale dropped his head and grabbed his bald pate. “Wanted to know what size tutu you wear.”

WATCH VIDEO
Dick Vitale at halftime

Ron Thompson: “We’re down eight, but that wasn’t much of a big deal. Eventually, it’ll kick in, we press, we get after it defensively. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, it’s Princeton, what are we going to do?’”

Mourning: “By the end of the first half, I knew that, O.K., they don’t have anyone in there who’s going to stop anything we do inside. Let’s take advantage of that. Let’s lean on our strength.”

WATCH VIDEO
Mark Tillmon, Georgetown junior guard

Scrabis (describing the Tigers’ state of mind): “You’re quiet in the locker room, but you can still hear the buzz outside. You can hear the noise, the excitement, and trying to focus on O.K., in the second half we’re going to keep doing what we’re doing.”

Marquardt: “It was the only time I can remember Carril speechless. Coach had a superstitious side. It was like the seventh inning of a no-hitter. You get the sense that coach didn’t want to put the whammy on us. So there wasn’t much said. It was, Keep doing what you’re doing. We’re up eight and confident. We felt like we belonged.”

Saunders: “My whole mindset going into the second half was that this was still an aberration. Georgetown is going to get its act together and win by 50.”

But on the first possession of the second half Princeton struck again. Lapin threw a one-handed bounce pass to a cutting Doyle, who converted yet another backdoor layup. At 31-21, Princeton had its largest lead.

Scrabis: “It got the crowd right back into it, got us back into the flow of where we left off. You always hear, the first couple of minutes of a half are important. If Georgetown comes out strong and we go cold, and all of a sudden we’re up two, it changes the mindset of both teams. That was a very important basket, one of the biggest of the game.”

Saunders: “When Princeton went up by double digits, it was beyond amazing. For ESPN, it was bordering on historic. This was becoming destination TV.”

Chapter 3

Clash of
Cultures

During halftime, countless people watching on ESPN had phoned others to make sure they tuned in. And if anyone hadn’t placed a call to family or friends before the second half began, Doyle’s layup gave an urgent reason to do so. A 16th seed holding a double-digit lead over a No. 1, in the second half of an NCAA tournament game, made for the closest thing to a viral meme that an era predating social media could offer.

Saunders: “You didn’t have Twitter and Facebook at the time.”

Carril: “What the hell do you want with Tweeter? Why do you want somebody getting in your business?”

Saunders: “What you did have was people calling the control room, the switchboard lighting up, people running into the studio going, ‘Do you believe this?’”

Vitale: “People are calling all over the country. Get to the TV, man. It might be Upset City. Upset City!

The prospect of an unprecedented upset accounted for much of the buzz, but Georgetown’s involvement counted for something too. Earlier that season Thompson had walked off the court before a game to protest an extension of Proposition 48 that would have denied scholarships to freshmen who didn’t meet certain academic standards. He felt that the proposal would disproportionately affect poor black students. In style and substance, the Georgetown coach had invited people to take sides.

Todd Boyd, cultural critic and USC professor: “He was a proud, strong black man who stood his ground. He didn’t scratch when he didn’t itch, and he didn’t laugh when things weren’t funny.” The perceptions were set: Opposite Georgetown’s dragon stood Princeton’s white knights.

WATCH VIDEO
John Thompson III

With Georgetown hats and Starter jackets heralding their ascendant status, the Hoyas found themselves in a cultural moment, at the confluence of the post-Reagan complacency and the rise of gangsta rap.

Boyd: “In gangsta rap you had a group of individuals who were in essence saying, You’re right, we are thugs, we are dangerous, we will kick your ass, we might rob you, we might take your life. We do what we want on our own terms. It sort of took the stereotype and turned it inside out. When you talk about Georgetown basketball, there’s no criminal activity taking place, we’re not talking about gangbanging or drugs or anything like that. But we’re talking about a group of black men who are basically saying to the college basketball world, We dance to our own music. We do things the way we choose, not the way you want us to, and we’re not really interested in making you comfortable. If you don’t like the way we play, F--- you. Which is a very assertive attitude. And I think there were a lot of people who would have preferred to not see that power emanate from a black team and a visible black head coach.

“John Thompson was not apologetic about any of this. He embraced it—and that made certain people more upset because the coach, who might bring order and control, was saying, No, we’re going to do this a certain way and it doesn’t make a difference whether you like it or not.”

Thompson: “I couldn’t have given a damn what people thought about Georgetown basketball.”

In fact, Thompson had an old-school disciplinarian’s way with his players. Virtually all of them who stayed four years earned degrees. Only a few weeks earlier he had met with Rayful Edmond III, a D.C. crack lord and Georgetown fan, to tell him to keep away from Mourning and Turner.

Ron Thompson: “Pops didn’t go out of his way to try to say, We aren’t hoodlums, we aren’t thugs. We just did what we did. He would always say, You don’t have to spend a lifetime explaining to people who you are, because they’re going to have their own opinions. We would laugh, because we’d hear what we were supposed to be, and we’d go to the Big East banquet and see other teams that just looked horrible, teams that would show up in sweatsuits and T-shirts, and we’d be in coats and ties, and we’re supposed to be the ones with no class.”

After ripping through the Big East, and entering the tournament as a No.1 seed, Georgetown was shaken by Princeton’s surprising performance, but Thompson (here with Jaren Jackson) made sure his Hoyas never panicked.

Tillmon: “When he walked out over [proposed NCAA entrance requirements], those kinds of things aren’t really talked about as much. I guess that part of him doesn’t really sell papers. He was taking a stand, not only for members of his basketball team, but for every African-American student who wanted to go to college and play sports.

We used to have ‘mental practices,’ where we’d sit down and talk about things of the world. Once he asked every one of us what we thought of Jimmy the Greek and what he had said [about blacks having been bred for athletic success]. Everyone answered, and I pretty much said nothing. Boy, did he light into me. ‘All you want to do is read your own press clippings. You need to have an opinion about something, whether it’s right or wrong.’ From that day on, I’ve had an opinion about everything.”

Mourning: “People thought we were thugs, that was the perception. But I thought everyone admitted we played the game the right way. We had a very nasty disposition—we played hard-nosed, rough, very defensive-minded, in-your-face basketball. But a lot of teams kind of stole that persona to help them win. UNLV. Arkansas. ‘Wow, it worked for them, maybe it’ll work for us too.’”

Everyone wanted to see the underdog beat the controversial coach. Not just Georgetown, but Coach Thompson. Take it a little further, white against black.
— Mark Tillmon, Georgetown guard

Jaren Jackson, Georgetown senior forward: “I hate to put the race spin on it, but it’s so obvious—all black guys against the majority white team, Princeton. And the styles of play stood out as well. We were not only an African-American team, but we played athletic, we pressured the ball. It was a completely different form of system we faced. And so that played a part as well.”

Scrabis: “The racial side of it, that’s a media creation, or just our society looking at it that way, but for basketball players and competitors, it was more about their style against our style.”

Saunders: “The biggest factor was the underdog. It’s human nature. It didn’t hurt that people didn’t like Georgetown, for whatever reason.”

Tillmon: “Everybody wanted to see the underdog beat the controversial coach. Not just Georgetown, but Coach Thompson. Take it a little further, white against black.”

Chapter 4

God, I Wish I
Had Seen That

Princeton owed its 10-point lead to Doyle’s hard cuts on offense and active defense on top of the zone. But not two minutes into the second half, with the Tigers leading 31-23, Doyle heedlessly fouled Georgetown’s Bobby Winston. He left the game with his fourth personal.

Matt Henshon, Princeton reserve: “Jerry was sitting next to me, and coach was just ripping him. Meanwhile we’re still up eight and all this stuff is going on on the court and I’m thinking, There’s a pretty good game you’re missing, coach. But it wasn’t in his nature to let go.”

Carril was upset because he knew Doyle’s ballhanding helped grease the gears of the offense. Georgetown had sharpened its pressure. The Princeton players could sense a lull coming.

Scrabis: “We were playing like we didn’t want to screw it up now. We’re not playing carefree.”

Heading into the second half, the Hoyas began to play to their strength, getting the ball inside to Mourning, here leaving Lapin (33) and Jerry Doyle grounded as he soars to score.

M
ore than anything, Georgetown began to creep back because Mourning took over.

Mourning: “I told my teammates, Listen, if you see an opening, throw me the ball. Throw it high, let me go up and get it. They threw the ball high, I caught it high, I finished high. I kind of manhandled them inside.”

During the first eight minutes of the half, Mourning scored on three layups and a dunk to ignite the run that carried Georgetown to its first lead, 39-37, with 10:25 left. But then Mueller sank a foul shot, and Charles Smith threw a pass right into Scrabis’ hands. Screw the system: Scrabis crossed Smith over on a fast break, finishing the layup to give Princeton back the lead.

A minute later, Smith countered with a stutter-step layup for his final points of the night. But Lapin responded with another three, which left Princeton up 43-41 with seven-and-a-half minutes to play.

Saunders: “While watching the game in the second half, Dick is going, ‘I don’t really have to do it, John. No. I was joking around. John, come on.’ He was in panic mode.”

Georgetown drew up a play for Mourning out of a timeout: Winston tossed the ball over a helpless Mueller for another tie, 43-43. But Princeton countered with its most reliable play. Leftwich leaned left, Smith stepped with him, and Leftwich shot backdoor again, leaving Smith somewhere in Pawtucket. Mueller found him for another easy layup, giving the Tigers a fresh two-point lead, now with just under five minutes left.

Princeton might have built a sufficient cushion if the officials had caught what happened next. The Hoyas lobbed the ball down to Mourning again—“throw it high, catch it high, finish high.” As he caught it, Lapin fouled him. But Mourning had had enough of getting tangled in double teams. After the whistle, he swung an elbow into Mueller’s face, bloodying his lip.

WATCH VIDEO
Alonzo Mourning’s elbow

Mueller: “I was bleeding, but it was definitely minor. I tried to play it up for more than it was. Typically, it’s going to be a technical. He gets ejected, who knows? That could be have been a huge turning point.”

None of the three officials whistled Mourning for a foul.

Carril: “I thought that was a little strange, all right?”

Ron Thompson: “Alonzo did that every day. That could have been us playing UNLV, he would have done that. But again, Oh, it’s Princeton, he’s a dirty player, swinging an elbow. Alonzo was just an intense player. Pops taught to grab a rebound, spread out, put your elbows out, get your ass out, throw ’em both. I’m trying to teach my 11-year-old son the same thing. Asses and elbows.”

Charles Range, referee: “Oh, God, yes, there should have been a call. Even if it’s incidental—you can have an offensive foul that’s incidental. It just happened to be the type of play that none of the referees saw it. That may have changed the whole game. I sort of got mad at myself and said, God, I wish I would have seen that.”

Carril: “I wish he would have seen it too.”

Uncharacteristically speechless in the locker room with a halftime lead, Carril was his demonstrative self on the court.
Manny Millan/Sports Illustrated

Range’s regrets are news to Mueller: “You’re kidding. I’d rather just have it the other way, where they saw it and didn’t think it was that bad. Killer. That would have been huge. Oh God. I’m going to go home and grind over that one. He didn’t see it. Oh, that hurts.”

Mourning: “I’ve done that a million times. S---, back in 1989? If it happened, it happened. That was part of the game, man. People get hit with elbows. If I did hit anybody with an elbow, I’m sure it’s healed up by now.” The freshman made both ends of a one-and-one to tie the game at 45 with just over four minutes to play.

Jim O'Connell: “I turned to the guy next to me and said, The whole building now knows it can happen. Some people felt, come on, Georgetown is going to win by 10. That moment had passed. Now it was, Oh my god.”

Chapter 5

We Should
Be There

Ivy League executive director Jeff Orleans had no plans to leave his office in Princeton, N.J., to travel to Providence for the game. Then Bob Myslik, the Tigers’ athletic director, offered a ride, and Orleans accepted, on nothing more than Myslik’s hunch that the game would be worth the trip.

If Orleans hesitated, it was because an urgent challenge had left him buried at work. Months before the game, Orleans had begun lobbying to preserve a tournament open to all. At the very least, he argued, let the weakest leagues “play in” to the main, 64-team bracket.

From his seat in the Civic Center, Orleans had no way of knowing what would transpire in the final minute. But the night’s events had already immeasurably strengthened his hand. And a political issue that would have been right in John Thompson’s wheelhouse was working in the little guys’ favor.”

Chuck Yrigoyen, who would join the Ivy League office the following fall: “It looked like the leagues likely to be left out would be the [historically black] Southwestern Athletic Conference and the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, and there’s no way that was going to fly politically. The MEAC was definitely at the bottom of the barrel [in the power ratings] at that point. So even if its winner had a good RPI, it would be S.O.L. under the proposed rules. In the SWAC, there’d easily be some 20-win team that would be left out.”

A month later Orleans would write a letter to leaders of the NCAA basketball committee: “The press coverage [of Princeton-Georgetown] demonstrates that wide segments of the public, many with deep loyalties to college basketball and to the tournament structure, will not be easily satisfied if conferences which they care about or respect are excluded from the Tournament under any format, whether our league, the two traditionally black conferences, or any other leagues . . . I believe that is the real message of Princeton’s evening in Providence: a tournament that explicitly invites conference champions as such ought to invite all of them absent clear, compelling and long-term reasons to exclude particular ones.”

Jim Delany, NCAA men’s basketball committee member and soon-to-be Big Ten commissioner: “We were concerned about everybody moving up from Division II, and seeing ourselves going from 26 conferences to 30, to 31, to 32, to 33. What we were saying was, If you come in, you’re going to have to compete, if there are 32 conferences, for those 30 bids. The question was, when does it end? We didn’t want the play-in because we thought it would be an open invitation to more conferences.”

Georgetown loomed as the most dominant force in college hoops at a time when the big conferences were lobbying to deny the weakest leagues a tournament bid. Princeton’s near upset of the Hoyas stopped that discussion.

But with the basketball committee uncomfortable over the likely exclusion of the historically black conferences, the play-in option began to look more and more appealing, even if it would expand the field beyond 64 teams. In the end, the small conferences’ proposal of a play-in offered a way out.

Delany: “As I look back, I think the compromise we achieved was maybe better than what we proposed. I think the resolution, with the play-in, worked out fine.”

The game enshrined the little guys’ place in the bracket—a chance, if only through a play-in, to prove their worth on the floor, rather than have them declared unworthy in some smoke-filled room.

Orleans: “The idea that Division I basketball is a national sport has been important to hundreds of schools and continues to be. What’s different now is the huge amount of money flowing into college football over the last decade. It’s changed the relationship between schools with huge resources and everybody else in Division I. A measure of the importance of [the Princeton-Georgetown game], even today, is that there seems to be a real allegiance to having one inclusive basketball approach, even if most at-large bids go to the big conferences.”

Kenneth Free, commissioner of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference: “We need the money too. A pair of shoulder pads costs the same for third-world conferences as it does for the big schools.”

Meanwhile, the Princeton-Georgetown game would prove to be just as much a milestone in the history of sports television. Tom Odjakjian’s confidence that it would deliver a huge audience was borne out. Later that year CBS would strike its $1 billion deal for the rights to the entire tournament.

The hope that a 16 can beat a No. 1 is part of the mystique of the tournament, and Princeton-Georgetown created a public anticipation. It’s going to happen.
— Neal Pilson, CBS Sports president

Jim Marchiony, Director of Communications, NCAA: “We—the committee, the NCAA—wanted a much broader audience for the rest of the tournament than it was getting at the time, and games like that helped sell our position, sell our dream.”

Neal Pilson, CBS Sports president: “The drama, the hope, that a 16 can beat a No. 1 is part of the mystique of the tournament, and the Princeton-Georgetown game created a public anticipation and awareness. History has proven that more and more teams in the lower side of the draw have very real chances of winning those games, and the memory of Princeton-Georgetown, the public has a memory . . . it’s going to happen at some point.”

Ted Shaker, CBS Sports executive producer: “We’re all in the studio, our jaws resting on the floor. You’re watching the game and couldn’t believe it. Here we are 25 years later, still talking about it. That’s a pretty good indicator. A game like that shows that the first round was something you should covet. We should be there.”

Chapter 6

Gimme the Ball,
Gimme the Ball

For the moment, however, ESPN was on the scene. Princeton led, 47-45 with just under three minutes left. And Doyle found himself in the open floor with a two-on-one opportunity, if a situation in which Alonzo Mourning is the lone defender can be considered an opportunity. If Doyle converted, the Tigers would go up by a precious two scores. Doyle chose to do what he had done in the first half: go right at Mourning.

Doyle: “It was a move I did countless times on the playground. Fake pass, quick shot. It was sort of comical, looking back, to think I could get away with that move.”

Mourning pinned the ball against the backboard with one hand and cradled the rebound. While Mourning will always get the credit for saving Georgetown that night, Tillmon played a huge supporting role. He quieted Scrabis in the second half, and two of his eight points came after Mourning’s block. He took a handoff from Winston, dribbled with his left hand diagonally through the lane, and put up an off-balance, arching one-handed runner that tied the game again at 47. He had developed that tear-drop by facing two of basketball’s greatest shot blockers everyday in practice.

Without a Mourning or a Mutombo, Princeton deployed its centers inside-out. Here, near the two-minute mark, Mueller held the ball clear of the key and turned his head to look over his right shoulder. Doyle shot through the lane from the top of the key, knocking once more at the backdoor. Mueller threw the quick pass. With three Hoyas surrounding him, Doyle flicked the ball quickly up.

Gorman: “Mueller, cut to Doy-lllllle . . .”

The ball bounced off the back of the rim.

“ . . . Got it!”

The shot fell, Doyle redeemed. Tigers back up two, 1:55 left.

Doyle’s shot sent the Princeton fans into a kind of religious fervor. Back in New Jersey, one supporter had seen enough praying.

Canning: “At that point, I just couldn’t keep quiet. I just said, Mom, everyone, that’s it, you’ve got to come out here and watch the last two minutes of this game. My mom came racing into the TV room. Most of the others did too. Even they cared by now.”

No sweat? Not quite, but down the stretch the Hoyas stayed focused, kept pressing and continued to get the ball in to Mourning.

Though down a basket and at risk of becoming victims of the greatest upset in college basketball history, the Hoyas never panicked. They once again lofted the ball into the post, and once again Mourning, who entered the game as a 65% foul shooter, converted both ends of a one-and-one. For the fifth time in the half, the game was tied, now 49-49. There was 1:41 to go.

Mourning: “I got lucky and made some free throws down the stretch.”

Lapin: “I mean, at the end, Mourning, what the hell is he doing making all those free throws?”

Princeton had two timeouts left, but Carril decided to let his players run their stuff. As the game approached the one minute mark, Mueller sailed a cross-court pass to Lapin, who was standing in the left corner.

Mueller: “You know, a lot of the game, they weren’t pressuring. A lot of this cross-court stuff, back doors, it was all working. It was all fairly easy. So I see Lapin on the far side. Yeah, O.K., I’ll do it one more time.”

Winston leapt out of the hedges, deflecting the ball into Mourning’s hands.

Mueller: “In the Ivy League, that’s a pass out for a three. Against Georgetown, the guy comes out of the lane and gets it. What a killer. Gosh, we get a good shot there and we make it, what a difference.”

With less than a minute now to play, Georgetown had its chance to frustrate the Tigers at their own game. The Hoyas worked the shot clock, soft-tossing the ball around the Princeton zone, which remained packed in. Tillmon took a pass from Jaren Jackson at the elbow and fired up a twelve-footer. Brick.

But Mourning’s arms elevated. No Princeton player could restrain them. Mourning grabbed the rebound, whereupon the ball popped loose. Tillmon picked it off the floor and tried another floater. Brick two.

Then Mourning played perhaps the most consequential game of solitary volleyball in basketball history. He tapped a rebound in the air with his left hand toward his right hand. Then he swung at the ball with his right hand, sending it back to his left. After one more tap with his left, back at himself, he grabbed it with both hands before Scrabis fouled him. Mueller slumped his shoulders and took a few slow, sad steps toward the baseline.

Well, I knew that somebody had to get a shot up, and the clock was ticking down. He had to shoot it, you know? So I made sure I was nearby.
— Alonzo Mourning

Mueller: “I wish I could have it back, you know? If I could do it again, I’d be diving into him every play. In hindsight, he had room to maneuver and just killed us. That hurts to think about.”

For the third straight time Mourning converted the front end of a one-and-one. The free throw put Georgetown up a point, 50-49, with 23 seconds left. But he fired the second one long. Scrabis chased down the rebound in the left corner. He passed the ball to Leftwich, who crossed half court and called timeout with 15 seconds left. The Tigers had one shot. And with Georgetown’s one-point advantage, it would likely be for the game. Despite his quiet second half, the ball would go to Scrabis.

Scrabis: “I’m running into the huddle saying, ‘I’m getting the shot. The ball’s going to me.’ Coach wanted me to have the ball. I wanted to have the ball.”

Carmody remembers Carril wanting Mueller to set a ball screen: “Pete just came up with it. We never ran a ball screen. That was anathema to him. But it was the right play for us.”

In the huddle, Scrabis hadn’t yet pulled his mind’s eye back for some historical wide shot: “I’m just trying to win a basketball game. I have 15 seconds left in my career, and there’s this opportunity. It’s that surreal kind of movie-type thing, where you’re not cognizant of what’s going on.

Princeton got what it wanted: Scrabis had his clean look at the rim with seven seconds left.

Mourning: “Well, I knew that somebody had to get a shot up, and the clock was ticking down. He had to shoot it, you know? So I made sure I was nearby.”

Scrabis: “He jumped from the middle of the lane.”

Mueller: “The way Mourning got out there, it’s insane.”

Still, even after Mourning’s block, the game wasn’t over. Princeton kept possession. One second remained.

For a beat, Princeton had an opening. Referee Range was preparing to hand the ball to Lapin to inbound. Mourning fronted Mueller on the near side of the foul lane. No Georgetown defenders stood behind Mueller.

Mueller: “Matt and I made eye contact.”

Lapin: “I was like, ‘Gimme the ball, gimme the ball.’ They were still getting ready. I just remember thinking, if the ref had given me the ball then, we would have had a good chance to score.”

Carril: “They were a little disorganized there. We had an easy layup there.”

Just in time, Mourning moved behind Mueller. Dwayne Bryant, who was guarding the inbounder, Lapin, also backed off into the foul lane, behind Mourning and Mueller. It had taken the better part of 40 minutes. But at long last, Georgetown was “watching the backdoor.”

Mueller: “Now, I don’t know what the odds are of me getting a lob over Mourning in the post and then putting it in. But that’s probably one of our better chances. If we toss the ball to the basket, there was a decent chance there.”

Range: “If the guy from Princeton felt like if I gave him the ball he had an opportunity to catch Mourning sleeping, I can’t remember the play. All I know is I wouldn’t have put either team at a disadvantage.”

So there would be no lob. Mueller would have to catch the ball and, with a disadvantage of at least three inches, sink a turnaround over Mourning or somehow draw a foul.

Lapin made the pass. Mueller took the shot. Mourning got a piece—of what, we don’t know. Something blew . . . but it wasn’t a whistle to send Mueller to the line. It was the horn, to end the game and spike much of the country’s heart.

Georgetown 50, Princeton 49.

WATCH VIDEO
The final seconds

Carril grimaced, nearly crying for the call. Carmody, the Princeton assistant, held his wrist in the air in supplication. Dave Pavelko, a Princeton reserve, charged toward referee Dick Paparo screaming, “He got hit! ”

Paparo: “The last play was not a foul. Pete thought it was, but it wasn’t. They can run that play back 10 times. There was no foul.”

Esherick: “Alonzo was really good at the discipline of not bringing his arm down to block shots. He would block it with just a flick of the wrist.”

WATCH VIDEO
Mark Tillmon, Georgetown junior guard

Lapin: “Every time I watch it, it just seems from a physics standpoint – how did that shot end up two feet short? If he blocked it, the ball is not going to go as far as it did.”

John Thompson III didn’t see the final shot: “I was out walking the concourse.”

Mourning treats the foul question as he did so many Princeton shots that night. He knows it’s coming and swats it away: “I blocked it, man. I blocked that one and I blocked the one before that. Yeah, yeah, I think they said I hit him on the wrist. I didn’t hit anybody on the wrist the whole damn game. I think I had maybe five or six blocks that game. [He had seven.] I think I led the country in blocks that year, if I’m not mistaken.” He is not mistaken.

Mueller: “I think the reality is, he got ball. His fingertips are touching a bit of my hand. I don’t think you call that. I think it was a great play by Mourning. I’d love to say, Oh, we got cheated. I don’t think we did.”

Chapter 7

Convergence
of the Twain

The game had supplied that rarest of things in a sports event on a big stage: an outcome that left both teams with a measure of satisfaction. Mourning had played magnificently, dominating on both ends of the floor. Yet 14 of Princeton’s 21 baskets had come from incursions into his space, on layups.

Scrabis: “I remember seeing [Carril] with his rolled-up program, eyes closed, pointing to the top of the arena, laughing. All of a sudden it’s over. Over. The air goes out of our balloon.

Doyle: “We were devastated. We realized we’d had an opportunity we didn’t capitalize on. It was extremely quiet in the locker room. We had not yet processed what the game meant for the tournament or 16th seeds or the Ivy League. We were just very sad and disappointed that we didn’t win a basketball game.”

WATCH VIDEO
Bob Scrabis, Princeton senior captain

Carril told his team: “As bad as you feel, feeling this bad is better than never getting a chance to feel this bad.”

Ron Thompson: “As I always tease [my brother] John, Princeton gets celebrated for almost winning. I bust his chops [over that] all the time.”

WATCH VIDEO
Georgetown coach John Thompson

Georgetown would win two more games before losing to Duke in the final of the East Regional. Tillmon believes the Princeton game robbed the Hoyas of their edge and cost them a trip to the Final Four: “Basketball is a rhythm game, and you want to stay in that rhythm as much as you can. They broke that rhythm.”

Stansbury: “Every time I see a national championship ring, I think about the Duke game we lost. We had the team to win it all that year. And the reason, in my mind, why the Duke thing happened, was that Princeton game. It was like the third Ali-Frazier fight. Ali won, but it took so much out of him. That win, for us, shook our psyche.”

In and out of his seat in Section 109, John Thompson III had teethed his ticket stub down to pulp, and watched two boxes of M&Ms melt in his hand, not in his mouth: “I wanted Georgetown to win the game. But I wanted Princeton to look good. So from my vantage point I don’t think it could have been any better.”

Mike Gorman had another game to broadcast: “I can’t even tell you who played. I mean, you were emotionally drained and just wanted to go have a couple of beers and talk about what you’d done [the last] two hours.”

Marquardt: “The further we get away from that game, the more people forget we lost. Socially, professionally, I interact with guys, and the subject of Princeton basketball comes up. They talk about the offense, [Princeton’s 1996 NCAA tournament upset of defending champion] UCLA, this game. And they think we won the game.”

Yrigoyen: “I remember Billy [Carmody] saying that [the basketball office] afterward had gotten calls from wackos who were so glad Princeton did this against a predominantly black team.”

WATCH VIDEO
Georgetown coach John Thompson

The controversy over the final shot—foul or no foul?—helps keep the legend of the game alive. “We’ll take that up with God,” Carril said to the press that night, “when we get there.”

Twenty-five years later Carril revisits that long-ago meeting of flicking wrists, Mueller’s and Mourning’s, and brings up Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Convergence of the Twain.” He says: “Ninety percent of games are determined by circumstance. Suppose he had called a foul? I equate that to the iceberg and the Titanic. They both grew in stature and in hue, the poem says. And the ship ran right into it. The ship that could never be sunk. Circumstance. Fate. Whatever you want to call it.

Like the rest of the Tigers, Leftwich was left stunned by the sudden ending and how close Princeton had come.

Saunders: “Princeton-Arkansas got an even higher rating [in the first round the following year]. That was all because of Princeton-Georgetown. People learned to look for the upset. Princeton-Georgetown changed the way people watched the NCAA tournament. They weren’t just watching their team. They were looking for the upset.

“Without that game, would people have been all that upset if some of the lower conferences lost their bids? The tournament would not have grown into what it is without Princeton-Georgetown.”

“Twins in many ways,” in the words of John Thompson III, the two coaches had their say after the game. Of the controversy over the final shot, Carril declared, “We’ll take that up with God, when we get there.” Thompson, meanwhile, said that Princeton “deserved a lot of credit,” but that “we deserved a lot more.”

Several years after the Georgetown-Princeton game, the NCAA underwent a restructuring that gave larger conferences more say in how college sports are governed. The press framed the changes as a case of presidents seizing control of athletic departments run amok. In fact, restructuring was driven by big-time schools trying to look out for their own interests. The big conferences, invoking buzzwords like flexibility and autonomy, still chafe at being lumped in with the little ones. Some Division I-A football schools have even threatened, if they don’t get their way, to go off on their own and create a “D-IV” super division.

Delany: “We want to do things within the NCAA, and if we’re able to, then obviously the revenue sharing and tournament and branding and Division I all stay the same. But we need to get what we need in order to make that happen. If we don’t, our boards of directors are going to have to make a decision.”

Tom Odjakjian, now associate commissioner of the American Athletic Conference: “If the five power conferences decide to go off [on their own], or the Division I-A football guys go off to form their own association, what would their basketball tournament be? What would it lose by not having the Cinderellas from the basketball-only conferences?”

Craig Esherick: “I’m very afraid that those five are going to start their own tournament. If they do, [a game like Georgetown-Princeton] goes the way of the buffalo. And that would be a shame. The Ivy League damn sure isn’t going to be a part of that group. And you know, Georgetown could be on the outside looking in too. Money has been the key to what they’ve been doing all along. Football is driving the bus, and driving it for the past 10 years. Basketball is just going to have to do what football tells it to do.”

But Princeton and Georgetown won something permanent that St. Patrick’s Day in Providence a quarter century ago. That game made Cinderella stories possible for schools such as Coppin State, Southern, Lehigh, Florida Gulf Coast and Norfolk State. Since 1989, 36 teams seeded 13th or lower have scored first-round upsets.

Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference commissioner Kenneth Free: “We were pulling for Princeton, of course. Georgetown was the giant, and it was just a matter of time [before the favorite would win]. But we felt that it lifted the conversation in our favor. It kept us alive.”

Metro-Atlantic commissioner Rich Ensor: “Today automatic bids aren’t even in the discussion. There’s acceptance that it’s good for everyone. And while [the small conferences] may not be the driving force behind a lot of the success, we’re part of the excitement of the earlier rounds.”

Princeton-Georgetown changed the way people watched the NCAA tournament. They weren’t just watching their team. They were looking for the upset.
— John Saunders

Ted Shaker: “It’s a great spectacle, with the whole country involved in the first two rounds. The end of the first day is like the grand finale of a fireworks show, when all the games are coming down to the wire at once, with results you don’t expect. It’s the best of sports.”

It would be easy, through the gauzy lens of 25 years, to regard the Georgetown-Princeton game as a means to some political end, or as a way for ignorant people to indulge noxious preconceptions about race and basketball. But the game also stood for something more elemental, which hints at the abiding appeal of March Madness.

Jerry Doyle: “That whole experience distills to why we love basketball, why I still love it, why I loved it as a kid shoveling the driveway. It was just a bunch of friends who loved the game, who were looking out for each other, who managed to play a good game against a much better team. People enjoyed the game, I think, because that sort of came across—that we were a bunch of guys who just loved playing, and we weren’t playing selfishly, but as members of a team unified by a common goal.

“To me it’s not ultra-complex. We don’t need to get into a lot of highfalutin language. At the end of the day it comes down to simplicity, to the fun of a bunch of young guys enjoying the game and enjoying each other.”

Princeton’s near upset of Georgetown made headlines the following day. A quarter of a century later its impact is clear as March Madness arrives once again.
Carlos M. Saavedra