The first game of the new year was to be against Notre Dame, ranked eighth in the national polls. Princeton now had six wins against two losses, and appeared capable of a strong run at the Ivy title. The pregame line was that if Princeton shot well, played good defense, and Notre Dame played poorly, Princeton could hang in there. Phelps let on that he considered his team a pressing team. He intended to try to emulate Villanova’s near-success in forcing Princeton to commit backcourt errors. But the long habit of winning has indisposed Carril for losing any game, so he worried with his usual vigor, especially after learning that Doug Snyder would miss action because of a sprained ankle.
On the appointed night, Digger Phelps came to Jadwin in a black three-piece suit. He wore a red tie and a gold watch chain, and his pants creased where he creased. He was sartorially correct and he looked prosperous. His players gleamed in gold warmup suits. Tall, lithe, and muscular, they ran smartly through their drills. They had won all of their games except one, conquering UCLA, Maryland and Indiana (before its swoon). Kentucky had rubbed off some of the sheen, but Kentucky was suspected of being the best in the country.
Pete Carril dressed in a short-sleeve shirt and a narrow red tie. He came out on the floor and draped his jacket over a chair. He slumped down into his chair. “There’s a lot of magic in Notre Dame’s name,” he said. “But there’s some real magic in Princeton’s name too.”
Across the court, Princeton’s cheer leaders cartwheeled and somersaulted. Into Jadwin flowed 8,000 people, some of them wearing jackets inscribed with the names of Catholic high schools. It was the largest crowd that ever watched a contest in Jadwin.
For the first 17 minutes the lead either seesawed or Notre Dame was ahead, moving in one span, midway through the first half, to a six-point advantage and threatening to open up with one of those frenzies of scoring which seem to occur so suddenly, and from which a slow deliberate team like Princeton is seldom able to recover against a team of superior talent. Princeton pushed on, however, to tie the score at 19-19 and then, with 6:36 remaining in the half, went ahead 25-23, to lead for the rest of the night.
Frank Sowinski was shooting 15-, 18-, 20-foot jumpers with no effort. As soon as he releases the shot, if its aim is true, he will start to retreat upcourt without waiting for the ball to drop through the rim. On one occasion, he received a pass to the side of the basket and started to jump, attempting to draw his opponent off-balance. He was temptingly close and must have considered forcing the shot over his opponent, trying with luck to get the ball in and perhaps draw the foul. Instead, he bobbed and weaved like a boxer looking for an opening and, when there was none, turned and passed the ball out to a guard to await another chance and a surer shot. That was disciplined basketball and one had to wonder how many other players would have forced the shot. Sowinski tried five field goals in the half and made every one.
By intermission, Princeton had opened its margin to 35-25. Notre Dame had shot 41.6 percent, Princeton 52 percent. Bobby Slaughter, Sowinski, and Bob Roma together had 31 points. I had watched Phelps during the last few minutes of the half as Princeton’s momentum began to tell on his team. Here was a coach at the pinnacle of his profession. He knelt on the floor by the sideline, his chin in his hand. Then he walked down the court, in front of the scorer’s table, and shouted signals to his players. “Four motion 33,” he ordered one time, making a twisting movement with his index finger and flashing three fingers. Especially after an adverse call, he would often slide his hands into his trouser pockets, leaving his thumbs to protrude like hooks. I imagined the same suit on Carril and wondered if its pockets could stand up to the wear and tear of his hands.
Notre Dame’s strategy to press Princeton was failing. Billy Omeltchenko, Rich Rizzuto, and Tim Olah had riddled the press, catching their bigger but slower opponents out of position with long passes. Olah could be said to have speed of the kind that Tim van Blommesteyn had two years ago. Princeton’s ploy on many occasions was to give Olah the ball at one end of the court, then retreat upcourt to await delivery there. His role for the season was now clearly cast as the Press Breaker.
Throughout the second half, Princeton’s lead expanded and contracted, once up to 19 points then down to 13, back and forth, until finally Notre Dame began to awake and thrash about. With 7:21 remaining the score closed to 59-47 and Princeton called time. From here on in, Carril wanted to be more deliberate with the ball and force Notre Dame to foul.
At 5:23, Roma launched a shot from 17 feet out and Carril stabbed himself in the head with his right forefinger and thumb. Roma’s shot was good and Princeton’s lead increased to 63-49, but Carril did not want him to shoot long. Adding disgrace to his discredit, Roma then immediately acquired his fourth foul. His chance to redeem himself followed a moment later when he scored three points on a lay-up and a foul to stretch the lead back to 66-51.
Suddenly, Carrill’s strategy of waiting for the foul shots started to backfire. Omeltchenku missed a one-and-one. Omo missed a one-and-one again. Bobby Kleinert, the Dead Eye, missed a one and-one; Roma threw a cipher; Olah missed. But then came Slaughter with a nice maneuver around his defender and a good Rockford, Illinois, lay-up. Omeltchenko followed with another, and Princeton’s victory was sealed at 76-62.
Digger Phelps walked slowly down the sidelines to Carril, grasped him by the shoulder with one hand, and shook the other. Uncharacteristically, Carril lingered, then they parted company and Phelps, his hands back in his pockets, strolled across the floor after his team. Carril would allow himself 24 hours of joyful reflection before declaring the game ancient history and turning his attention to the start of Ivy competition.