March 17, 2019, marks the 30th anniversary of Princeton men’s basketball’s memorable duel with top-seeded Georgetown in the NCAA Tournament. The following story appeared in the April 5, 1989, issue of PAW.
The guy handing out press credentials in the basement of the Providence Civic Center before the Princeton-Georgetown basketball game saw “Princeton Alumni Weekly” written after my name and shook his head sympathetically. “You guys haven’t got a chance,” he said. “Thirty points, at least.”
The rest of my colleagues in the media were even less optimistic. USA Today figured that the odds were a billion to one against the Tigers’ winning the N.C.A.A. tournament. Dick Vitale, ESPN’s histrionic and hyperbolic basketball analyst, claimed before the tip-off that if Princeton beat Georgetown, he’d serve as a ball boy at the Tigers’ next game. Even the professional bookmakers in Las Vegas listed Coach Pete Carril’s squad as twenty-three-point underdogs to the powerful Hoyas, the top-rated team in the East and one of the favorites to win the tournament.
None of these prognostications seemed to faze the members of the Princeton University Marching Band, who spent the hour before the tip-off serenading a boisterous St. Patrick’s Day crowd outside the Civic Center. Passersby seemed to pause and check their cups of beer — Providence’s open-beverage law was evidently suspended for the day — when the straw boaters and motley jackets of the Band hove into view. The Georgetown band, by contrast, was sort of sleepy. For a while, the two bands alternated songs, but then the Tigers broke into a medley of fight songs, and the Hoyas went inside to find their seats.
Inside the Civic Center, Princeton fans waved signs that read “Tigers — the Real Beast of the East” and “St. Patrick Went to Princeton.” Alexander Wolff ’79 of Sports Illustrated had cornered John Thompson III ’88, the son of the Hoyas coach and a four-year letterman for Carril, so I didn’t interrupt. In the lobby of the arena, concessionaires were selling a lot of T-shirts with the Georgetown logo and not so many with the Princeton Tiger.
Three hours later, the concession stands still had lots of Georgetown shirts, but they were sold out of Princeton souvenirs. The same people who had scoffed at Princeton’s chances before the game bubbled with admiration afterward — and none more so than Vitale, who shamelessly appeared after the game wearing a Princeton sweatshirt. Even the official who had estimated Georgetown’s winning margin at thirty points was impressed. “You guys got robbed,” he informed me.
Georgetown’s victory over Princeton, of course, was by, one point — 50-49 — not thirty. Almost immediately, the Princeton-Georgetown game assumed legendary proportions, and was mentioned in the same breath as such memorable contests as the Princeton-Yale football game in 1981 and Dick Kazmaier ’52’s perfect outing against Cornell in 1951. Billy Packer, the CBS basketball analyst, called it one of the best games in the history of the N.C.A.A. tournament.
No one who follows Tiger basketball should be surprised that Carril’s undersized and outmanned team kept close with a national power. This year’s team led the nation in defense, and every year, it seems, Princeton upsets a team ranked in the top twenty nationwide. With an N.I.T. championship and seven Ivy League titles in twenty-two years, Carril has built a reputation as one of the best coaches in college basketball. So why the national headlines, the two-page spread in Sports Illustrated, and the nonstop adulation of the CBS broadcast crew? An exciting, dramatic game, to be sure, but what made it so exceptional?
At least part of the answer lies in the recent performances of Ivy League teams in the tournament. Not since Princeton beat Oklahoma State in 1983 has an Ivy team won a game in the N.C.A.A. championships, and the last four Ivy representatives in the tournament were blown out in the first round by an average of thirty-five points. These gross mismatches have led some to suggest that the Ivy champion’s automatic bid to play in the tournament be canceled. Princeton’s heroic effort against the Hoyas could make the N.C.A.A. think twice before dismissing Ivy basketball as uncompetitive. As John Thompson, the Hoyas’ coach, said after the game, “I’d be a fool saying they should revoke the automatic bid after I come out of there fighting for my life. I’d say they need two automatic bids.” A number of newspaper columnists, including George Vecsey of the New York Times, have since taken up Thompson’s theme.
This game also burnished the reputation of Pete Carril, who is well known in the coaching fraternity but less so by the public. On paper, it was no contest — Georgetown had bigger, faster, more experienced players, stars like Charles Smith, a high-scoring guard, and Alonzo Mourning, the ferocious, shot-blocking center. On the court, Carril neutralized the Hoyas’ advantages by “spreading the floor,” with all five players on the perimeter and no one under the basket. This tactic forced Mourning to play out near the foul line and allowed the Tigers to run their patented back-door play over and over without the threat of the 6’10” Mourning lurking under the basket for the block. Throughout the game, Princeton controlled the tempo, patiently using its full forty-five seconds on each trip down the court. During the first six minutes of the game, for example, the Tigers held the ball for five minutes and thirteen seconds. They also had an 8-2 lead.
Carril’s young team played its best ball of the season. Bob Scrabis ’89, the captain and the only senior on the squad, led Princeton with fifteen points and spearheaded the Tigers’ inspired defensive play. (Georgetown’s fifty points were the fewest they scored all season.) Matt Lapin ’90 came off the bench to score twelve points and hand out four assists. Three guards, Jerry Doyle ’91, George Leftwich ’92, and Troy Hottenstein ’91, suffocated Smith on defense, limiting him to four points — thirteen below his season average. Kit Meuller ’91, Princeton’s 6’7” center, drew the unenviable assignment of both guarding and shooting against Mourning, but he responded with nine points and eight assists. And he refused to be intimidated: during a scramble for a rebound late in the game, a vicious elbow by Mourning bloodied Mueller’s lip, but moments later at the other end of the court, he calmly beat Mourning for an easy layup.
In the final minutes of the game, though, Mourning took over. He scored seven of Georgetown’s last nine points, including the winning free throw, and blocked consecutive shots by Scrabis and Mueller in the last six seconds. Some said that he fouled Mueller on the last shot; others claimed that poor (or biased) officiating throughout had robbed the Tigers of a victory they deserved. Mueller was diplomatic. “It’s tough to say,” he said after the game. “I think maybe he hit my hand.” Carril interrupted. “That’s not what he told me,” the coach said. “Of course, I can’t tell you what he did say.”
In addition to reaffirming his reputation as a coach, Carril emerged from the game as a darling of the media. Dozens of newspapers printed an Associated Press photograph, snapped in the final seconds, of the coach’s anguished expression. All of a sudden, the press was calling Carril “an artist,” “a magician,” and “a grand old master of the college game.”
Asked after the game to compare the contest with Princeton’s N.I.T. victory in 1975, the coach toyed with his trademark cigar and deadpanned, “I dunno — we won that one, didn’t we?” On the questionable non-foul on the last shot: “We’ll have to take that up with God, when we get there.” And three weeks later, in between the tournament’s semifinal games, Carril turned up as a guest commentator on CBS. He used the opportunity to squash the perennial rumor that he is leaving Princeton for another collegiate coaching job. (Perhaps an assistant coaching job in the N.B.A., he allowed, but not another college position.) CBS used the opportunity to show a clip of Carril’s facial contortions on the sideline during the Georgetown game. But this game was more than a masterpiece of coaching, flawlessly executed by the players, if not the officials. And it was more than a David-and-Goliath confrontation, although the crowd of 12,106 was raucous in its support of the underdog. (Princeton received a standing ovation at the end of the game; Georgetown was booed lustily; and Bronx cheers were clearly audible on ESPN’s postgame interview with Thompson.) Rather this was a battle of the old and the new. Basketball from the 1950s — crisp passing, solid defense, the back door — against an archetypal 1980s team most comfortable playing a freewheeling, up-tempo game above the rim. For almost forty minutes the old frustrated, baffled, and bewildered the new. Carril and the Tigers proved to a nationwide audience that basketball is as much a game of patience and perseverance as size and ability. A back-door layup, the Tigers demonstrated scores as many points as a thunderous dunk.
“It’s an understatement to say that Princeton deserved to win this game,” Thompson told the press afterward. “I can’t say enough about the kids at Princeton.” Neither can anyone else.