Twenty-five years later, I’m still waiting to hear a whistle. Still waiting to see Kit Mueller ’91 step up to the line and slay the dragon with the blue GEORGETOWN on its chest. Still waiting for the scoreboard to read Princeton 51, Georgetown 50.
March 17 marks the 25th anniversary of the night I watched an entire basketball game from my brother’s dining room. I was afraid to change my seat, because something stunning was taking place that St. Patrick’s night at the Providence Civic Center.
I got my first taste of Tiger magic during my freshman year, when Princeton upset nationally ranked Notre Dame at Jadwin Gym. In the intervening years, I saw my share of big wins, including a few in the NCAA tournament. But the Tigers had fallen on some hard times in the late ’80s, and had not gone to the Big Dance since 1984.
I was at Dave’s house because he had ESPN and I didn’t. As the game began, I was still finishing my dinner, looking over the top of his head as he sat in the adjacent living room. At first I was mesmerized by the spectacle. Never mind about the Tigers being 23-point underdogs, or a billion-to-one shot to win. (“That’s to win the whole tournament,” head coach Pete Carril had pointed out. “For this game we’re only about 400 million-to-one.”)
Carril’s joke was not far from the truth. Georgetown, the region’s top seed and favored by many to win the national title, brought with it a decade-long history of success and a reputation for intimidation. Princeton, the region’s 16th and last seed, came from the lightly regarded Ivies, whose representatives in the tournament the previous three years (Cornell, Penn, and Brown) had been embarrassed. Surely the vaunted Hoya defense would stifle the Tigers. The question was not whether the Tigers would lose, but whether they would be trampled.
They proceeded to run rings around the confused and frustrated Hoyas for the first 20 minutes. Layup followed three-pointer, and at the half the Tigers led, 29-21. In the ESPN studio, John Saunders and Dick Vitale sat speechless (perhaps an unprecedented on-air experience for Vitale).
After Jerry Doyle ’91 scored the first basket of the second half, Georgetown’s advantage in strength and size began to take hold. The Hoyas finally took the lead about midway through the half, but Princeton didn’t fold. After a Mueller free throw, senior captain Bob Scrabis ’89 stole a pass, drove the length of the floor, switched hands on the dribble, and scored to regain the lead. The Civic Center rocked. I very nearly tumbled over the railing into Dave’s lap.
The rest of the game came down to Princeton against Alonzo Mourning, Georgetown’s 6-foot-10, 240-pound center, who would go on to a long NBA career. Mourning would finish with 21 points, the only Hoya to reach double figures. To add to the drama, he also bloodied Mueller’s nose with an elbow thrown in apparent frustration, and did not even get called for a foul.
After gathering in his 13th rebound with 23 seconds left, Mourning hit one of two free throws to give Georgetown a 50-49 lead. Princeton could work for the game’s last shot. With seven seconds left, Scrabis flashed open at the top of the key, and took aim at a miracle.
He said later he was sure it was going in. But Mourning flew at him and tipped the shot away. After a scramble, the ball squirted out of bounds off a Georgetown player. One second remained.
From the right sideline, Matt Lapin ’90 inbounded the ball to Mueller, who was outside of his normal shooting range. He turned and jumped. Mourning rose with him, and blocked the shot. But did he get Mueller’s hand, too? No, said the referees by their silence. Carril grimaced as he left the court, but later was diplomatic about the non-call. “The last play of the game,” he said to reporters, “we’ll take that up with God when we get there.”
Thoughts about the game disrupted my sleep for a week. My mind kept returning to a single image: Mourning gets called for a foul on Mueller, who hits two free throws with no time remaining to win it. (When I met Mueller last season at a game in Jadwin, I simply told him, without any context, “I still think you got fouled.” He knew exactly what I meant. And his wife agreed with me.)
The Tigers surely will face heavy favorites in future tournaments. Indeed, after close first-round losses in the next three tournaments, Princeton finally got its upset in 1996 when it defeated UCLA in Carril’s final season. But it will never be possible to duplicate the perfect combination of conditions that night in Providence when, because of its recent difficulties and the league’s apparent decline, a good Princeton team entered the tournament wearing the label of just another overmatched Ivy League champion. Princeton’s success in subsequent tournaments, as well as widespread familiarity with the once-mysterious Princeton offense, means that Princeton never again will sneak up on an unsuspecting and perhaps unprepared favorite.
Twenty-five years have passed, but every once in a while, when I’m daydreaming or about to fall asleep, I hear a whistle, see a referee’s arm go up, and watch Carril leave the court laughing and smiling. A perfect ending.
Paul Hauge ’80 lives with his wife, Angela Carmella ’80, and children Kristin and Michael in Westfield, N.J. His first date with Angela was a men’s basketball game against Columbia in the 1976-77 season. He tries to get down to Jadwin Gym a few times a year, and likely will do so more often when Kristin enters Princeton next year as a member of the Class of 2018.