"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. Princeton would hold the advantage, and pull off a historic, shocking first-round upset.
As the country gears up for this year's version of March Madness, another group of underdog teams including the 2011 Princeton Tigers, who reached the tournament after hitting a buzzer beater against Harvard in the Ivy League playoff are trying to repeat Princeton's feat and win the hearts of all those sports fans who love the long shots. (Or, conversely, the enmity of office-pool participants who picked that big-time team to make the Final Four). Over the past 20 or so years, fans have witnessed a series of first-round stunners in the NCAA basketball tournament. In 1991, for example, Richmond shocked Syracuse to become the first 15th-seeded team to take a tournament game; two years later, Santa Clara University, led by a funky freshman point guard named Steve Nash, toppled Arizona. Back in 2005, tiny Bucknell, of Lewisburg, Pa., knocked off Kansas, a perennial favorite to win the championship.
These games were all classics. But they still haven't gained the same level of lasting resonance, among hard-core, casual and even marginal sports fans, as Princeton vs. UCLA.
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
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.
UCLA was Carril's last shot to prove Princeton could actually beat, not just scare, a big-time program. Five nights before, after a stirring 63-56 overtime win over nemesis Penn in the Ivy playoff, Carril announced he was calling it quits when the season ended. He stunned his players, including me, by writing on a locker-room dry-erase board, "I'm retiring. I'm very happy." He was too choked up to speak.
I had a courtside seat for that game in Indianapolis, on the Princeton bench. I was a sophomore, small too small, and slow forward on that 1996 team. The only action I saw was the pregame layup lines. But countless times over the past 15 years, my former teammates and I have all had conversations, even with people we've just met, along these lines:
"Oh yeah, you played basketball at Princeton? Were you in that team that beat UCLA?"
"Man, I remember that game, I was at my frat house at Scranton going wild." Or "I was at a sports bar in Baltimore," or "I was in my den, screaming at the television." People and, believe me, not just Princeton or UCLA alums know precisely where they were, what they were doing and what they were drinking (often alcohol) during that game. About a year ago, Lewullis met with a patient, lying on a stretcher, in a pre-op room. "Hey, aren't you the one who made that shot against UCLA?" he asked right before going under the knife.
While talking to my teammates and coaches, players and coaches from UCLA, and other people in the RCA Dome that night fans, sportswriters, television announcers for this story, we kicked around reasons why that game struck such a nerve. Part of it, of course, was due to the clash of two brand-name institutions, one more known for its academics, the other, though no scholarly slouch, more famous for piling up championships. "It was revenge of the nerds," says Bill Hancock, the executive director for college football's Bowl Championship Series, who held a similar leadership position for the NCAA basketball tournament in 1996, and sat beside the Princeton bench that night.
The contrasting styles were also appealing. UCLA wanted to speed the tempo, while Princeton slowed it down. Carril's impending retirement, and the Lewullis backdoor, just added to the drama. And it would be naive to think the racial composition of the teams doesn't play some role in the game's enduring legend (Sydney Johnson, the current Princeton coach and captain of that 1996 team, was our lone African-American player).
But maybe most importantly, Princeton vs. UCLA stands out because it marks a turning point in the evolution of college basketball, and the NCAA tournament. Back in 1996, the Internet was a fledgling medium. Sites did not offer blanket coverage of quality "midmajor" teams from smaller conferences. Networks like ESPNU and CBS College Sports didn't exist to give exposure to less notable teams. "No one knew who the hell we were," says Johnson over lunch at a Princeton pub in January, while his players were preparing for their first-semester final exams. Johnson is coaching in his first tournament: Princeton faces Kentucky on March 17. "They knew coach Carril, they knew about our style, but they didn't know about our players and what we could do. Then all of a sudden, we beat the national champions."
The surprise was part of the charm. Now, there are websites devoted to breaking down the bona fides of midmajor programs. When Cornell makes it to the Sweet 16, like it did last year, or Butler reaches the national championship, it's no great shock. Everyone knew those teams were talented. After Princeton vs. UCLA, the Internet began its explosion, and the arms race to build serious basketball programs at smaller schools began. Schools like Gonzaga started proving that, indeed, you could build consistent national contenders outside the big power conferences. "I see Princeton as the last of the little schools that could," says Les Carpenter, the feature writer for Yahoo! Sports who covered Princeton vs. UCLA as a columnist for the Connecticut Post. "It was the last of the great upsets."
Here's the inside story of how it happened.