The Daily Princetonian, Larry Dupraz Digital Archives

When Gabe Lewullis ’99 has a rare block of free time during his sports medicine fellowship at New England Baptist Hospital, he often heads to the Harvard Business School gymnasium. Over the years, a group of former Ivy League basketball players who now work in Boston have established an invitation-only pick-up game at the breeding ground of Wall Street’s next top draft picks. Lewullis received his introduction to the game from Matt Henshon ’91, a practicing lawyer and captain of Princeton’s 1991 men’s basketball team.

When Lewullis gets in a game, he inevitably drifts out to the right wing of the 3-point line while on offense. Once there, he pauses for a moment in hopes of catching his defender off guard. Then, he plants his left-leg and cuts sharply to the basket. If another Princeton graduate has the ball at the top of the key, he whisks a bounce pass to the cutting Lewullis, who will likely catch the ball in stride and lay it in the hoop for two easy points. Then Lewullis prepares for what always comes next. “When they see Princeton guys playing together,” he says, “if we beat them backdoor, you know you’re going to hear about it.”

For this, Lewullis has only himself to blame.

Fifteen years ago on a mid-March night in the basketball Mecca of Indianapolis, the freshman who had started just two games since December made the backdoor cut seen around the country. His subsequent layup clinched Princeton’s 43-41 win over the defending national champion UCLA Bruins in the first round of the 1996 NCAA Tournament. It was victory No. 525 in the storied career of retiring Tiger head coach Pete Carril. For the gray-haired man sometimes called the Yoda of college hoops, it was also his first NCAA Tournament win in 13 years. In the decade leading up to the UCLA game, Carril had developed an unwanted reputation for wearing Cinderella’s slipper for 39 minutes, only to have it fall off on the doorstep of upset immortality.

The game also sparked a vast web of interconnected stories, memories and myths that continues to grow 15 years later. But none of it would have been possible, if not for a little-remembered game played the previous Saturday on the campus of Lehigh University.

Though most think Princeton played the game of its life to beat UCLA, the team’s best performance of the season actually came six days earlier in an Ivy League playoff against the University of Pennsylvania at Lehigh University. Heading into that game, the Quakers had won the past three league titles and held an eight-game winning streak against the Tigers. The most recent of Penn’s wins had come the previous Tuesday when Princeton, with a shot at clinching the Ivy title outright at the Palestra, instead left the Quakers’ home court with a 63-49 loss. Though Penn had swept the season series against the Tigers, the Ivy League rulebook stipulated that since both teams held 12-2 records, they would play a neutral-site playoff to decide the title.

Ben Hart ’96 was one of two seniors on the 1995-96 Princeton team. When he arrived at the school in 1992, the Tigers had made it to the NCAA Tournament for the past four seasons. For Hart and Chris Doyal ’96, the playoff with the Quakers marked the last chance either had to win an Ivy League title. “That game, there was so much pressure,” Hart says. “We’d had a great year and losing to Penn eight straight times really got to us.”

Knowing that something needed to change after Tuesday’s loss, Carril inserted Lewullis and sophomore guard Mitch Henderson ’98 into the starting lineup on Saturday night. The switch enabled the Tigers to match up better with the fast Quakers on the perimeter and as the game progressed, it looked as if Princeton would finally break its four-year hex against Penn. With only 11 seconds left in the game, however, Ivy League Player of the Year Ira Bowman rose up into the air and drained a 3-pointer to cap Penn’s comeback from a 13-point deficit and tie the score at 49-49.

In overtime, circumstance forced Carril, who generally played with a rotation of six or seven players, to make another tactical adjustment. Henderson had fouled out of the game late in the second half and three other Princeton starters – Lewullis, forward Sydney Johnson ’97, and center Steve Goodrich ’98 – entered overtime one foul from ejection. For most of his career, Carril had eschewed the zone defense, along with the fast break and slam-dunk, as basketball gimmicks and his Princeton teams prided themselves on guarding opponents with a stingy man-to-man set.

Not wanting to risk the loss of another player, Carril yielded to necessity and switched to a zone for the first time all season. “We were bad at it,” Carril says, recalling the team’s zone defense during the five-minute extra period. But the zone allowed Johnson to stay in the game and he rewarded his coach’s judgment, knocking down a 3-pointer and two free throws in overtime, then stealing the ball from Bowman to give his coach a 63-56 win and his team the Ivy League title.

Johnson, a three-year captain, 1997 conference player of the year, and current head coach of the Tigers, still remembers the game as his proudest moment on a basketball court: “That’s the closest I felt to [my teammates] and the happiest I’ve been, no doubt.”

After the game, Carril walked into the locker room and without saying a word, wrote on the white board: “I am retiring.” Then he added, “I am very happy right now.” Carril’s announcement surprised his team. “I knew I was going to retire but it was one of the best-kept secrets,” Carril says. “I thought it would be a release of pressure for the team and for myself to announce it then.”

The next night, the team gathered in Doyal’s room to watch the NCAA Tournament selection show. There, the Tigers heard about their next opponent, the defending NCAA champion UCLA Bruins, who led the nation in field goal percentage and had a roster that boasted four future NBA players. When the Bruins found out they had to travel to Indianapolis for the tournament, the team cried foul. “UCLA was very uptight,” Doyal says. “They felt it was the wrong seed, wrong region. They complained a lot.”

The Tigers, on the other hand, were just happy to have a spot in the Big Dance after winning the Ivy League. “We went into the tournament with a very relaxed attitude,” Doyal says.

While the Bruins fumed, the Tigers prepared. In the three days leading up to the game, Carril spent the majority of each practice implementing the 1-2-2-zone defense he had deplored. “I didn’t want to [play zone] but they were the best shooting team in the country,” Carril says. In order to slow down the Bruins dangerous fast break, Carril demanded that after each offensive possession, his team would run back on defense. “We were in no way, shape or form to try to get an offensive rebound,” says Brian Earl ’99, a freshman on the team and now an assistant coach under Johnson. “It seemed like we were giving up that they were going to be more athletic, but it turned out to help us a great deal.”

Passing through the airport in Indianapolis, Hart bought a disposable camera at a kiosk. Fifteen years later, its little moments like this that will make Hart shake his head in wonder.

Princeton had one day to practice in Indianapolis before its game with the Bruins. As the Tigers continued to fine-tune their zone defense, they received an unexpected visit from Indiana’s most popular basketball player. Reggie Miller, a UCLA alumnus and star shooting guard for the hometown Pacers, had a few words for the kids from Princeton, “Miller had come and taunted us the day before almost to the point of disrupting our practice,” Darren Hite ’98 says. “He brought [fellow Pacers players] Rik Smits and Mark Jackson with him. He was basically making fun of us for being Ivy League boys and saying we didn’t have a chance to win.”

After coming close in 1989, '90, and '91, Princeton had earned a reputation for near misses in the NCAA's opening round.
The Daily Princetonian, Larry Dupraz Digital Archives

In the Thursday, March 14 issue of the Daily Princetonian, the school newspaper did not offer its team a much better chance of winning that day’s game with the Bruins. “All in all the objective side of the brain must conclude that it doesn’t look promising,” read one editorial in the Prince’s sports section. “But the objective side of the brain is rarely relevant in college basketball when March arrives. Princeton has always played above its head come tournament time, although the result has usually been a near-upset rather than an actual win.”

For Princetonians, the night of March 14, 1996, remains a unifying moment frozen in time – viewed in the same way that Pittsburgh Pirates fans remember Bill Mazeroski’s 1960 home run to beat the Yankees or Villanova alums recall the 1985 Final Four win over Georgetown. “Every now and then, when I meet someone new,” Lewullis says, “they’ll tell me what bar they were at or what they were doing during the game.”

The game doesn’t open well for Princeton. UCLA makes three quick baskets, taking a 7-0 lead. Out of the first media timeout, the Tigers finally get on the board when Doyal steps into a 3-point shot, knocking down his only points of the game. After another Princeton three brings the score to 7-6, the teams settle into the kind of game that has made Carril famous. On offense, the Tigers deliberately swing the ball around the three-point arc in an attempt to probe open a hole in the Bruin defense. The possession often ends with a step-in 3-pointer, although occasionally the Tigers will catch the opposition off guard and manage an easy layup on a cleverly designed play. Whatever the shot, once it goes up in the air, all five Tigers turn and sprint back to set up in their 1-2-2 zone defense. After the game, players will point to Carril’s zone as the key to victory.

Though the Tigers do not shoot well, they continue to contain the Bruin fast break. The middle portion of the game fades into a blur for most of the players. On the side of the court, Alex Wolff ’79, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, sits at the press table next to Henshon, who covers the game for the Princeton Alumni Weekly. When the Tigers have the ball on offense, Henshon, a former Carril disciple who played through four years of backdoor cuts and spot-up 3-pointers, calls out Princeton’s next play to Wolff. One row behind Wolff and Henshon sits Nate Walton ’00, son of UCLA legend Bill Walton and then a Princeton recruit. Five years later, Nate will captain the Princeton team to another NCAA Tournament berth.

Back on the hardwood, the game has a certain rope-a-dope quality. The Tigers take a few punches from UCLA, go down by five or seven points, and then Henderson or Johnson or Lewullis inevitably steps up and hits a 3-pointer to keep Princeton within striking distance. In the second half, the energy inside the Hoosier Dome starts to build. “As often happens at neutral-site tournament games, you have this mass of people with no rooting interest other than the upset,” Wolff says. “It was kind of a late-coalescing upset.” Though the Tigers likely do not know this, the Indiana state basketball tournament has served as a subject of controversy in the months before the game. With authorities threatening to transform Indiana’s “one-size-fits-all” state tournament made famous by Hoosiers and Gene Hackman into watered-down divisional contests, the state’s many basketball fans find a rallying point in a Princeton team that suddenly resembles Hickory High.

Just over seven minutes remain in the game when the camera pans to Reggie Miller sitting behind the UCLA bench, wearing a backward light blue hat with a wide, yellow brim. When the 40,000 fans see Miller on the large projector above the court, they start to cheer for the Pacers’ all-star. Miller smiles and turns his hat around to reveal giant, gold “UCLA” lettering, which he underlines with his right index finger. Instantly, the crowd erupts in a chorus of boos.           

After the Miller timeout, UCLA builds its lead to 41-34. But then the upset thirty-five minutes in the making starts to come into focus. First, Johnson catches a pass at his favorite spot on the top of the 3-point arc and drills a 3-pointer: 41-37. Next, Doyal throws a bounce pass to Goodrich on the baseline. Goodrich catches the ball and ducks under the basket for a reverse layup: 41-39. Four minutes left. The crowd noise continues to rise. Fifty seconds later, Doyal swats the ball away from Bruin Toby Bailey. After a scramble, he whisks it to Lewullis. Over the air, new CBS play-by-play announcer Gus Johnson’s voice continues to rise: “Chest pass to Henderson. Three-on-one. Bounce pass. JOHNSON. Lays it in with two hands. Wo-hoaa, we’ve got a ballgame.” 41-41.

Along the press table, Grant Wahl ’96, who will later cover the NCAA Final Four for Sports Illustrated, sits next to classmates Jim Ivie and Jeremy Radcliffe. Ivie and Radcliffe are covering the game for the student radio station and Wahl is keeping track of statistics. Later that night, SportsCenter will air their play call of the game. As the game reaches its closing minutes, Wahl keeps punching Ivie in the leg.

Years later, Gus Johnson will reflect on this experience and conclude that the Tigers played the game of their lives. In reality, Princeton shoots a dismal 17-for-46 from the field and makes just one free throw the entire game. More than anything, the Tigers benefit from the combination of a solid game plan and good fortune. “I do think we were a good team,” Sydney Johnson says. “I think if you combine that with being well coached and luck, you tend to win games. Special games.” 

That last aspect becomes abundantly clear with one minute in the game when Johnson loses the ball to Bailey and mistakenly grabs the front of his jersey as Bailey darts toward the basket. The refs call an intentional foul on Johnson and the fans are apoplectic. Carril angrily swipes his yellow roll of paper in the air to express his disbelief. Despite the protests, UCLA has two free throws and possession. Somehow, Bailey bricks both foul shots and on the ensuing possession, UCLA’s Johnson misses a shot for the first time that night. Princeton grabs the rebound and calls timeout. The shot clock has been turned off.

In the timeout, Carril calls the play: “center-forward backdoor.” At the end of the first half, Princeton ran the same play and it ended with an uncontested layup for Lewullis. This time, Carril adds a twist. He tells Lewullis to cut to the basket not once, but twice, to catch his man off guard. If Lewullis does not beat his man, Doyal will come around a double screen and catch a pass from Goodrich.

The timeout ends and the Tigers return to the floor. With seven seconds left, Goodrich receives the ball at the right elbow and holds it high in the air. Lewullis, guarded by future NBA player Charles O’Bannon, cuts once from the right side of the arc. O’Bannon has the play covered and Lewullis drifts back to his starting spot. Five seconds. After a brief pause, he plants his left foot and sprints toward the basket. With his back to the basket, Goodrich pivots on his left foot and delivers a perfect bounce pass. Lewullis, like he has done countless times in practice, catches the ball with both hands. Over his left shoulder, he sees Johnson running from the opposite side of the court. In a rush, Lewullis throws up an awkward two-handed layup off the near glass. The ball banks neatly off the glass and goes in the hoop. Princeton 43, UCLA 41.

Lewullis turns to sprint up the court with the tooth-faced grin of a 3-year-old. He repeatedly mouths the words “Oh my God” as the Princeton bench jumps up and down, knees kicked up, arms spasmodically pumping, in a state of unadulterated bliss. Whenever the subject of this game comes up in the future, Lewullis’ teammates will needle him for his reaction to the winning layup.

Contrary to what the NCAA promotional videos would have you believe, the game does not end there. It takes the refs what seems like an hour (in reality, closer to 10 minutes) to decide that 2.2 seconds remain on the clock. It does not matter. Bailey air-balls a baseline jump shot and the Tiger bench empties onto the court. An AP photographer snaps a photograph of Henderson jumping in the air, arms raised in victory as a dejected Bailey slumps in the background. The picture will grace the cover of countless newspapers the following morning.  

This locker room image, taken with a disposable camera, is believed to be the only team photo from the night of Princeton's win over UCLA. (Courtesy Ben Hart '96)

When the game ended, Carril walked to the scorer’s table to shake hands with UCLA coach Jim Harrick. Carril’s players claimed that after the final clock sounded, they heard the coach mumbling under his breath in typical Carril fashion, “I can’t believe they [expletive] did it.” Back in the locker room, the Tigers had a brief moment to themselves before the post-game reporters descended upon the team en masse. Hart remembered the disposable camera he had purchased a few days earlier, now on the top shelf of his locker. Right before the media entered, Hart gathered the team together and tossed the camera to someone in the locker room who snapped a photograph of the victorious Tigers. Hart does not know of any other pictures taken of the team in the game’s immediate aftermath.

After the press conferences ended, Wahl handwrote his column for the game and called it in to the Prince. The front page of the school paper on Friday read “David 43, Goliath 41.” Wahl’s column ran opposite the coverage of the game, which closed with the line: “Do you believe in miracles? After last night, you gotta believe.” The Prince later printed T-shirts with pictures of that Friday’s front page. The storybook run would end Saturday, in a second-round loss to Mississippi State.

On Princeton’s campus, students poured from dorm rooms onto Prospect Street in a frenzy rarely seen before or since that Thursday night in March. “When we got back to campus, everyone wanted to tell us their story from that night,” Darren Hite ’98 says. “I always get a kick out of wishing I was there,” Hart adds.

Later that night, Hart, Doyal, and Jesse Rosenfeld ’97 stopped by the hotel bar since nobody on the team could sleep. “I remember sitting down and we were watching SportsCenter,” Hart says. “[A few people] turned to us and said, ‘Hey, could you believe that Princeton game last night, that was awesome.’ They didn’t recognize us.”

While they have spread out from Ireland to California, the 1996 Tigers remain a close team. Hite takes the lead on keeping the team in touch, and each May, players can count on seeing at least six or seven of their teammates at the basketball team picnic during Princeton Reunions. At those meetings, the team rarely talks about the UCLA game. “The things we laugh and joke about are things that happened in practice, things that happened on the road, sometimes the things that we heard from Coach Carril,” Johnson says.

That does not mean, however, that the game has not trailed the Tigers over the years. “I think that the UCLA game is the one that will follow us for the rest of our lives,” Johnson says. “There’s not too many airports I’ve been to or basketball events or Princeton alumni events where some [alum] hasn’t come up to me and said, ‘Hey, were you on the team that beat UCLA?’”

The game has an uncanny ability to pop up at unexpected moments. Nine months ago, Hart and his wife met with the interim pastor of their church to discuss their daughter’s baptism. The pastor grew excited when he found out Hart had attended Princeton. “He said, ‘Man, I’m a big basketball fan. I don’t know if you remember this, but 12 or 13 years ago, I went to the NCAA Tournament in Indianapolis and saw Princeton play UCLA,’” Hart says. Little moments like this keep a game that happened 15 years ago alive in the minds of Hart and his teammates.

For Lewullis, these moments happen most frequently. This year, he convinced his wife to take him to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., for his birthday. At one point, Lewullis looked at the wall and saw a life-size cutout of Mitch Henderson, arms raised in the air, an orange “21” on the front of his black jersey. Then Lewullis looked up at the television in the room. As he did, the basketball player on the screen drifted out to the three-point line and shifted his weight onto his left leg before planting hard and cutting to the basket, about to receive the perfect bounce pass from his center.

PAW contributor Zach Kwartler ’11 is a former executive editor for sports of The Daily Princetonian. This story was adapted from his final project for a fall-semester journalism course taught by L. Jon Wertheim.