Princeton vs. UCLA: Reflections on a Historic Upset

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Tom Russo / AP

Princeton guard Mitch Henderson jumps in celebration of the Tigers' victory over UCLA in the first round of the 1996 NCAA men's basketball tournament

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We Gambled Big
"So you're the guy who's calling me to gloat?" asks the familiar voice on the other end of the line. No, I assure Reggie Miller, the ex-Indiana Pacers star and current NBA analyst for TNT, I'm not trying to stick anything in his face. I'm just curious to know, How did it feel to get jeered in the town where you're a hero?

Miller was in the RCA Dome that night, rooting for UCLA, his alma mater. During the second half, when it was apparent that Princeton had a serious shot at pulling off the upset, his face appeared on the JumboTron. Miller, a UCLA alum and All-Star for the hometown Pacers, was wearing a backward hat. Realizing he was on the screen, Miller flashed a devilish smile, then turned the hat around, pointing to the letters on the front: UCLA. It did not matter that Miller was at the peak of his clutch-shooting powers, having turned the Pacers into NBA title contenders. Thousands of boos came pouring down.

Miller quickly mentions that fans of the other schools that played that day were still in the crowd. Those booers weren't Hoosiers. That's true, I tell him, but there were still thousands of Indiana locals in the building, including more than a few Pacers fans, who were still giving him the Bronx cheer. "I brought it on myself," says Miller today, with a laugh. "I was antagonizing the building by flipping my hat around, and letting people know that, yes, I'm wearing my colors proudly. I knew what kind of reaction I was going to get." At that point Miller, the players and the 30,000-plus people in the building were aware that the fans were propelling the Tigers. "Once it got close, it was almost that gladiator moment," Miller says. "Win the crowd, you win your freedom. That's what it was. You guys got the crowd, and I think that totally took my Bruins out of the mix."

The second half, however, had started slowly for Princeton. On one possession, for example, Sydney Johnson misfired from the top of the key. During Johnson's freshman season, he had been one of the most accurate three-point shooters in the country. But in his sophomore year, he added more muscle to his wiry frame, which improved his ability to defend and rebound but threw off the mechanics of his shot. So Carril switched his form, and at this point in his career, he kind of held the ball in front of him and pushed it toward the basket. It wasn't a technique taught at basketball camps. While he shot 45% from three-point range as a freshman, he was now hitting around 30% of his threes, a precipitous drop.

A 28-year-old play-by-play announcer, working his first NCAA tournament for CBS, took note of Johnson's odd form. "Interesting release for Sydney Johnson with his jump shot," said Gus Johnson, now one of the more popular announcers in the country, who enjoys a cult following due to his loud, ecstatic calls of close college-basketball games. His broadcast partner that night, former NBA player and coach Quinn Buckner, started cackling. Sydney Johnson's form was a joke on national TV. "I laughed because I didn't know the right thing to say," says Bucker, who now calls games, with Gus Johnson, for the Big Ten Network.

Gus Johnson defends his partner's giggles. "I know Sydney is the coach and they're doing well now at Princeton," he says. "But you know he had the ugliest shot maybe in the history of college basketball."

So what unfolded next was even more remarkable. Harrick had inserted freshman Brandon Loyd, a spot shooter who rarely played that season, into the game as a zone buster; our defense was so packed into the lane, Harrick figured that Loyd could get open on the perimeter. He was right. With 13 minutes left, a Loyd three from the right wing gave UCLA a 26-23 lead. But then Sydney Johnson, almost as if he heard Buckner's laughing and wanted to exact a little revenge, fired another one of his unsightly push shots, this one from the parking lot.

Bang. Tie game. As he ran back down court, Johnson waved his arms up in the air, like a quarterback trying to rally the crowd, with a huge smile on his face. In a little over two weeks' time, Johnson's postshot exhortation would be featured in One Shining Moment, the wildly popular tournament-highlight reel that CBS airs after the title game. "It was like, 'This is terrific,'" says Johnson. "We gambled big, we hit, let's celebrate. You're not going to act normal. I glanced at their bench, and they weren't too happy with that." Johnson hit two more threes that half, including a crucial one with six minutes to go; at that point, UCLA was up by seven points, 41-34, and looked prime to finally pull away.

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