There’s no way around this simple fact: Princeton basketball would not be what it is today without Pete Carril.
After Butch van Breda Kolff ’45 left his post of men’s basketball head coach in 1967 to coach the Los Angeles Lakers, the school was looking for someone to steward a growing program filled with talented players. The administration settled on Pete Carril, who played for van Breda Kolff while he coached at Lafayette and had just begun his head coaching career with one year under his belt at the helm at Lehigh.
“When Princeton hired me, I never thought I could not do the job,” Carril recalled in his book “The Smart Take from the Strong.” “It was an opportunity that I wanted, and I was able to get it … you go ahead and do what you’ve always done, which is to do the best you can.”
Taking a chance on the inexperienced coach paid off. Despite his penchant for shirtless tirades during practice, and animated behavior on the sidelines, Carril went on to become one of the most legendary and influential coaches in Ivy League and NCAA basketball history. In his 29 seasons with Princeton, Carril amassed a program-record of 514 wins and had a .663 winning percentage. He brought the school 13 Ivy League regular-season titles and led the team to three NCAA tournament wins and an NIT championship. He is most well-known for his offensive system, the Princeton offense, and his outlook on basketball has influenced countless small-program underdog coaches to this day; his wisdom and stature even gave him a reputation as the “Yoda of college basketball.”
Carril was born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where his immigrant father worked in the local steel plant. His father would often give him and his sister the same piece of advice: “in this life, the smart take from the strong.” These words molded Carril’s coaching style and philosophy over the course of his career and were crucial to the University’s success during his tenure.
One way in which Carril applied this axiom to his coaching was his recruiting strategy. Although the University does not offer athletic scholarships, past coaches had been able to attract incredibly talented recruits, but this did not interest Carril. As Paul Hutter noted in his book “The Golden Age of Ivy League Basketball,” Carril was focused on finding players who best fit his system, players who Hutter called “components.”
“If … you want to be treated like a star, Princeton is a bad place,” Carril noted in his book.
These players had to be clever to understand the Princeton offense. Famous for its deliberate and highly technical approach to basketball, the offense made Carril’s teams known more for their style of play rather than the players. Players were expected to master the fundamentals of dribbling, passing, shooting, and cutting, especially “the backdoor,” a move in which a player without the ball fakes a movement away from the basket, and then sprints towards it.
“He would fixate on granular details that would make a big difference in basketball games,” Sean Gregory ’98, who played for Carril, said in a recent interview with The Daily Princetonian.
“You would see the specific joy he would get from … things that most basketball coaches wouldn’t think twice about,” Gregory recalled.
The offense allowed the Tigers to use their sound fundamentals to hold the ball for long periods of time, and prevent opponents from having a large number of possessions (this strategy was incredibly effective: it even helped the Tigers have the best scoring defense in the country every year from 1989-2000). The offense was extremely successful for the Tigers during Carril’s tenure, in large part thanks to his coaching genius and the basketball IQ of his players.
“I struggled with it,” Gregory recalled. “But I remember sitting there and thinking, ‘this shit works.’”
Setting the Stage for 1995–96
Carril’s system had brought Princeton basketball success during his previous 28 seasons as head coach. As he coached through the 90s, he got into his mid-60s, and it was unknown how much longer he would be coaching the Tigers. The idea that the 1995-96 season could be his last was not on his players’ minds, however. They were more focused on winning the Ivy League.
“[Retirement] wasn’t even a discussion,” Gregory said. “The guy was as intense as ever … there was no ‘last hurrah’ talk at all.”
Coming into the 1995–96 season, there was some frustration over the team’s performance in recent years because it did not live up to the expectations created during Carril’s tenure. The team had not won the Ivy League since 1992, nor won a game in the NCAA tournament since 1984. Princeton had finished runners-up to Penn each of the past two seasons, and were hoping that the third time would be the charm.
“The expectation was to win the Ivy League,” Jesse Rosenfeld ’97, a forward for the Tigers, said in a recent interview with ‘The Prince’. “[Penn] had graduated an unbelievable class the prior year, so we felt like there was a great opportunity for us to reclaim the title.”
“We wanted to wrestle [the title] away from Penn, and set ourselves up for the next few years to dominate the league,” Gregory added.
Carril and his staff always prepared players intensely for the season, but this preseason would require especially rigorous practice due to the number of younger players occupying important roles.
“We had a bit of a transition … there was a changing of the guard from Rick Hielscher [’95] to Steve Goodrich [’98],” Chris Doyal ’96, a forward for the Tigers, recalled in a recent interview with the ‘Prince’. Hielscher (who was named to the All-Ivy First Team in 1995) and Goodrich were both centers, an important position in the Princeton offense, so making sure that everything was running smoothly before the season for Goodrich — and the rest of the young offense, for that matter — would be crucial.
The team did have a few key veterans returning to the squad who would be helpful in bringing the younger players along. Sydney Johnson ’97, the first sophomore captain in team history the previous season, was an experienced junior with a lot of playing time under his belt. Doyal was a talented senior forward who was third on the team in scoring in 1994–95 behind Johnson and Hielscher. Junior center Rosenfeld stood at 6’9” and would play a crucial role as Goodrich’s backup. The program also returned a number of key reserves such as Ben Hart ’96, Jason Osier ’97, and Jose Ramirez-Del Toro ’97.
The preseason was also especially intense for Carril’s team because he liked to maintain a tight rotation during the season, typically including no more than eight players getting regular minutes. This meant that reserves, even those who had been a part of the rotation the previous season like Osier and Darren Hite ’98, would compete fiercely for what was essentially one spot in the rotation.
“If you weren’t in the top six or seven, you probably weren’t going to be thrilled with your playing time,” Gregory noted. “Everybody wanted something and we were all going to go after it.”
Despite the fierce competition, the teammates got along very well. The summer before, a number of players on the team had built some additional chemistry while working for the University.
“We were working together all summer, playing ball together all summer … there was a core group of us who really bonded,” Rosenfeld said.
During the summer, those on campus were also able to schedule unofficial scrimmages against nearby Division I school, Rider University.
“The beauty of it was … you [didn’t] have the academic pressure,” Gregory noted. “It was a really fun summer, both personally and basketball-wise.”
This camaraderie would be crucial in tackling the highs and lows presented by the basketball season.
Carril liked to prepare a challenging preseason schedule so that his team could have the opportunity to warm up against strong opponents. In 1995–96, the Tigers would compete in three separate preseason tournaments against bigger programs.
“We were ready to fight, but I don’t think we knew how we were going to end up,” Doyal recalled.
After knocking off Lehigh and Lafayette, the team beat Boise State and Jerry Tarkanian’s Fresno State Bulldogs to win their first tournament in Fresno. The Tigers then returned to New Jersey to host in-state rivals Monmouth (who played in the NCAA tournament that year), only to be embarrassed on their home floor, losing 65–56.
“We got outplayed from the get-go,” Doyal lamented. “There was a lot of trepidation after that game.” Princeton was able to rebound by knocking off St. Joe’s in the next game at Jadwin Gymnasium.
The Tigers then traveled to the midwest for the Iowa State Holiday Classic, going one-on-one. Their loss was a narrow 50–47 defeat against the hosts, who went on to qualify for the NCAA tournament.
“We grew a lot in that first part of the season, and we learned how to win,” Doyal noted.
In the Iowa State game, Goodrich was able to break out as a star player through his play against the Cyclones’ star Kelvin Cato, who like Goodrich, went on to play in the NBA.
“Steve went toe-to-toe with Cato,” Gregory recalled. “He outplayed him.”
Finally, the Tigers headed to Green Bay, Wis. to take part in the Oneida Pepsi Classic. The Tigers defeated Ohio before being smacked 55–35 by Green Bay (who also appeared in the NCAA tournament) in the next game.
“At halftime, we were feeling really great … and we felt like we could hang with them,” Rosenfeld said. “They kicked our butts in the second half.”
The Tigers’ final game of the preseason was against lowly LaSalle, who would finish with a 6–24 record. The Tigers lost 52–49.
The preseason had produced mixed results.
“We could see how good we were,” Rosenfeld recalled, “but there was a toughness we would need to have if we were going to beat some of those better teams, especially those that knew our system well.”
The Ivy League Season
Princeton then looked towards the conference season, entering Ivy League play with a 7–4 record. The team would face an instant test, matching up against Penn, the defending champions, in their first game. The tilt would likely have serious ramifications for the title race.
“Princeton’s games with Penn are very physical,” Carril noted in “The Smart Take from the Strong.” “It’s a game that has always been played in the trenches.”
The Tigers hosted the Quakers at Jadwin Gym. Despite losing star players Jerome Allen and Matt Maloney, who graduated in 1995, Penn was still a very formidable opponent. The game was a hard-fought defensive battle, typical of Princeton’s in-conference games, but Penn held a steady lead throughout much of the game. Despite a valiant late comeback, the Tigers lost 57–55.
“They just made smarter plays than us,” Rosenfeld said. “Starting 0–1 definitely created some pressure.”
Doyal remembers the following game against Yale as a crucial moment in the season.
“That game showed the thin margin between winning and losing [the league],” he recalled. In the closing seconds, a Yale player had an open shot in the wing that could have won them the game, but he missed, and the Tigers escaped as 56–55 victors.
“My career kind of flashed before my eyes,” Doyal added. “If he makes that shot, you go to 0–2 in the Ivy League against a team that hasn’t lost in three and a half years. It becomes mission impossible.”
Despite barely hanging on in that game, the Tigers were able to stay in the title race by rattling off 12 consecutive wins, including close victories over Cornell, Brown, and Columbia.
“We always struggled against Columbia … and Brown on the road,” Doyal said. “When we started [winning] in the places where we had lost before, that gave us the confidence that something was different [that year].”
The team was so jubilant after the Brown victory that team captain Johnson accidentally threw the game ball through the roof of the gym in celebration.
“The material came crumbling down, and we looked at each other … and then we went into the locker room to celebrate,” Rosenfeld said, laughing.
The Ivy League season was not all fun and games, however. Competition between teams familiar with each other’s style of play can often be quite tiring, and the late-night travel didn’t help, either.
“It all becomes tedious … the games get attritional,” Doyal recalled.
Over the course of the grueling season, a number of younger players were able to break out. In the close win against Cornell, Gabe Lewullis ’99 came up clutch and led the team’s comeback, despite having missed part of the season with an injury. Highly-regarded freshman Brian Earl ’99 began playing even more than he had in the pre-conference season.
“We knew [Earl] was a big-time shooter,” Gregory said. “It became pretty clear … that he was going to be solid.”
“Eventually, Mitch [Henderson ’98] became the first guy off the bench during the Ivy League season, and was a real spark plug,” Rosenfeld added. Goodrich was also able to establish himself as one of the top players in the league during the winning streak.
Coming into the final game against Penn, the Tigers had a one-game lead over the Quakers thanks to two other losses Penn had suffered. This meant that a Tigers victory at the Palestra would clinch the conference title for Princeton.
Penn was hot, having won five consecutive games coming in, but the Tigers were confident.
“Coach Carril gave an unbelievable pregame speech,” Rosenfeld said. “He said, ‘you guys are going to have good lives. What are you going to do in your life that’s going to be harder than winning this game?’” The Tigers rushed onto the court with energy and excitement.
Unfortunately, the energy did not translate into a good performance. The team struggled to shoot, and despite an excellent performance from Goodrich, they were beaten soundly. “They brought the energy. They knew what we were doing,” Gregory recalled. “We just couldn’t shoot right.”
The final score was 63–49. “They kicked the crap out of us,” Rosenfeld added. The defeat marked the Tigers’ 8th consecutive loss against Penn.
Penn and Princeton were tied at the top of the league standings at the end of the season, so they would match up in a playoff to decide the league champion, who would have the opportunity to participate in March Madness.
“We knew we could beat them, but we were struggling with why we weren’t playing [our best] basketball against them,” Rosenfeld said. “It felt like more of a mental block than anything.”
The game would take place at a neutral site, and Lehigh, located in Carril’s hometown of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, was chosen as the venue. Lewullis grew up fifteen minutes away from Bethlehem, and would have family in attendance.
“It was the perfect scenario,” he said in a Princeton athletics documentary. “We just had to make sure we won the game.”
Because of those eight consecutive losses, Carril knew he would have to make a change to push his team to victory. He inserted Lewullis and Henderson — Princeton’s current men’s basketball head coach — into the starting lineup, who he hoped would be effective in defending Penn’s quick guards.
Gregory remembers the practices which occurred in the days before the playoff game as particularly intense. During practice, Carril walked around asking players “what are you made of?” and “how do you want to be remembered?”
In “The Smart Take from the Strong,” Carril discussed his motivational philosophy at length. “If I had to stop and think about everything I said to [my players], I would have been a psychologist,” he wrote. “I don’t try to psyche them. I just try to tell them what is on my mind very emphatically.”
“That was his thing, testing your character,” Gregory said. The character of the Tigers would be revealed in the effort they gave and the quality of their performance in their ninth try at beating Penn.
The Tigers held a lead throughout the second half, but Penn came back late and forced overtime thanks to a late basket from Ivy League Player of the Year Ira Bowman, which tied the game at 49. “Even when you think you had the game won, something always came up,” Doyal said.
Carril was “apoplectic” on the sideline, according to Gregory, because Goodrich had made a defensive mistake leading to Penn’s game-tying basket. “[Assistant coaches] Bill Carmody and Joe Scott had to take over the huddle,” Gregory recalled, laughing. “They had to take the reins, and remind us we still had a game to play.”
Henderson had fouled out in the second half, and with three starters in foul trouble, the Tigers were forced to switch to zone defense in overtime for the first time all season. “I remember being really nervous,” Henderson told the filmmakers. “There was a lot on the line.”
“We had every reason to fold,” Gregory said.
But the Tigers refused to give in, and their resiliency shone through. Although Princeton played the zone poorly, the starters didn’t pick up additional fouls, and the offensive play of Johnson (who finished with 12 points) was enough to put the Tigers in front for good. “I played the better part of overtime,” Rosenfeld recalled. He had filled in for Goodrich, and played fantastically, according to Gregory. “There was a genuine feeling of euphoria [on the floor].”
Princeton won 63–56. The team and the University community were ecstatic. “There was huge student turnout … they came down to cut down the nets, like you saw on TV,” Doyal recalled. “That was the first time anything like that had happened to us … that was amazing.”
“I literally was on the bottom of a pile of students as they rushed the floor, and for a split second I was actually worried for my life — I vividly remember that,” Johnson told Princeton Alumni Weekly.
The insertion of Henderson and Lewullis into the starting lineup proved to be instrumental in winning the game. Henderson established himself as a physical presence, and his speed made a real difference on both ends of the floor. Lewullis finished with a team-high of fifteen points. The two held Penn guard Donald Moxley to 0-for-14 shooting.
After the game, the team retreated to the locker room, and Carril made a shocking announcement. He walked over to the whiteboard and wrote “I am retiring, I am very happy,” and then walked out of the room.
Needless to say, the players were shocked. “That was not on our minds,” Gregory said. “[Carril] kept it a secret pretty well.”
However, after a brief silence, and the shedding of a few tears, the team began to clap. “Everyone was looking around in disbelief … but also joy,” Rosenfeld recalled. “Not because he was retiring, but because he was able to retire this way. It made us feel great.”
The team sang and cheered happily the entire bus ride back to Princeton, and received an enthusiastic reception upon its return. “We went to the eating clubs and celebrated with our fellow students, which was incredible,” Rosenfeld said.
Carril was particularly over the moon.
“We had never seen Carril so happy. It wasn’t in his DNA,” Gregory said. “It was this whole other side of him.”
Preparations for the NCAA Tournament
The day after winning the playoff game at Lehigh, the Tigers met in Chris Doyal’s suite in Little Hall to watch the tournament selection show. The Tigers were awarded a No. 13 seed in the NCAA tournament and were to face No. 4 seed UCLA in the first round of the Southeast Regional.
“I think there was a picture in the paper of [the announcement], and we were all celebrating,” Doyal recalled, laughing. “We weren’t excited about UCLA. We were happy we got to go somewhere on a trip … and that we weren’t going on another road trip [in the northeast].”
The Pac 10-champion Bruins had a 23–7 record and were the defending national champions. Their team had lost a few key athletes from the previous season, but still included four future NBA players, including Charles O’Bannon (younger brother of the 1995 tournament’s most outstanding player, Ed O’Bannon) and Toby Bailey (who had netted 26 points in the previous year’s championship game).
The Tigers were excited for the matchup, and preparations began right away. The scout team, made up of bench players, would typically mimic upcoming opponents in practice scrimmages. There was no way to prepare for the size of UCLA, however. “Jose Ramirez-Del Toro, who is 5’10,” was pretending to be [UCLA forward] Toby Bailey [6’6”] ... you’re not ready for what hits you on the court with guys that big and strong,” Rosenfeld said.
Meanwhile, UCLA believed they had been underseeded by the selection committee, and had been placed in a disadvantageous region. The team was also having chemistry issues.
“I can’t say we were the most focused team going into the tournament,” UCLA forward Kris Johnson told Time Magazine. “We kind of went into it like, ‘Ivy League, schmivey league.’”
Despite their internal strife, holding the Bruins’ offense in check would be no easy task. The Bruins scored an imposing 77.4 points per game and led the nation in team field goal percentage at 53 percent. They played a run-and-gun style, scoring a lot of fastbreak points. The Tigers worked hard at the 1–2–2 zone defense, which had been effective in past matchups against athletically superior teams, including their 1989 duel with Georgetown, because it forced them to take outside shots.
“There was no rhyme or reason to it,” Gregory remarked. “It was more like pack it in … and figure it out.” The Tigers were also instructed not to pursue offensive rebounds so that they could get back on defense and thwart the fastbreak attack.
Princeton travelled to Indianapolis, Ind. two days before their game in order to practice on-site. Upon arrival, players were thrilled with the various luxuries to which they were entitled by competing in the tournament, including a police escort and access to a true press room. It wasn’t all glitz and glamour, though. The NCAA gave higher seeds hotels closer to downtown, and since the Tigers were a low seed, they ended up getting the short end of the stick when it came to accommodations.
“It wasn’t a police escort rolling up to the Four Seasons,” Gregory said, laughing. “It was a police escort to the Fairfield Inn in suburban ‘wherever.’” That night, the team dined at what Gregory referred to as a “TGI Fridays-type establishment.”
During practice the next day, they were graced (and annoyed) by the presence of Indiana Pacers players Reggie Miller, Rik Smits, and Mark Jackson, who tormented the team and told them they had no chance to win. Miller went to UCLA, and was interested in intimidating his beloved Bruins’ opponent. The Bruins spent their public practice putting on a dunking exhibition for the fans in attendance, while the Tigers ran layup lines. Chris Doyal managed to throw down a dunk, which was greeted by sarcastic applause from the crowd.
The teams would meet at the public practice venue, the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, for the game, in front of over 30,000 fans. The RCA Dome was the football stadium for the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts, meaning that the stands are built much further away from the basket. College basketball players have complained in the past that this affects their depth perception when shooting, and since the Tigers shot a lot of three-pointers, this was a concern for the team. Yet, they planned to stick with their offense.
“We knew that against big time teams that hadn’t seen us, our stuff worked better,” Gregory noted. “In many ways, it was harder to run the offense against Harvard and Dartmouth than UCLA.”
Those familiar with the Tigers were not terribly optimistic about the team’s chances, regardless of the stadium they played in, or the offensive strategy they employed. Under Carril, the program had developed a reputation for getting close to upsets in the NCAA tournament but never quite finishing the games off; the Tigers had lost in their last four appearances by a combined 15 points.
“All in all the objective side of the brain must conclude that it doesn’t look promising,” one ‘Prince’ sports writer opined in a piece released before the game. “The result has usually been a near upset rather than an actual win.”
Although the media focused on the team’s reputation and Carril’s chance to cement his legacy as one of college basketball’s greatest coaches, the team said they felt very little pressure preparing for the matchup.
“There was no ‘we’ve got to do this for coach,’ ... none of him saying ‘come on guys, do this for me,’” Gregory recalled. “This game [was] gravy and we [were] going to prepare like crazy for it.”
“We were so carefree … just playing with house money,” Sydney Johnson told Time Magazine. “It was almost like not having an awareness of what we were against. That was a hell of an advantage.”
For the UCLA game, Carril decided to stick with the same lineup he started against Penn in the playoff game, meaning Lewullis would get another rare start. Lewullis, who had been on the fringe of the rotation for much of the season, would now play a key role in the Tigers’ gameplan. Goodrich, Henderson, Doyal, and Johnson rounded out the relatively young starting lineup.
The Last Hurrah
As the game got going, the Tigers struggled to find openings in the Bruins’ defense, and UCLA was able to find success on the offensive boards. Even as the Tigers began to make stops on defense, the offense faltered; Henderson missed a layup, and Johnson saw two three-point attempts clank off of the rim. “I remember being like, ‘woah, we’re in trouble,’” Johnson told Time.
At the first media timeout, the Tigers trailed 7–0, but the team regrouped, and Chris Doyal hit the team’s first bucket of the game coming out of the break, bringing the score to 7–3. Another Princeton three-pointer brought the game within one point, and the Tigers began to settle in on both sides of the ball.
“After those shots went in, our confidence started to grow.” Doyal said.
UCLA allowed the Tigers to sit back and operate their offense with ease, meaning the Tigers controlled the pace. Meanwhile, UCLA was forced to operate in an uncharacteristic half-court offense, and they struggled mightily. In the first half, the Bruins turned the ball over 11 times, and were forced to take many three pointers, only making one of nine attempts. The defensive strategies implemented by Carril proved to be effective in keeping the Bruins off of the scoreboard, even though the Tigers were being badly outrebounded (21–9 in the first half).
“They were overconfident,” Doyal recalled. “As the game progressed … you could see the panic creep into their eyes.”
The resilient, scrappy Tigers began to get under the Bruins’ skin. During one scuffle at the end of the first half, Princeton forward Jamie Mastaglio ’98 yelled “F—k you, f—k you,” at UCLA forward Kris Johnson. Johnson responded by calling him a “nerd.”
“It was an incredible line. I really had nothing else to come back with,” Mastaglio told Time. “That was the last thing I expected to hear in the middle of a tight college basketball game.”
This exchange was one of the more exciting moments from an otherwise boring first half, but “boring” was the way Princeton hoped the game would go. As the game limped towards halftime, scoring was at a premium; both teams shot under 40 percent from the field in the first half. Bob Ford, who covered the game for The Philadelphia Enquirer, remembered the pace of the game in a recent piece with this summarization:
“To be sure, UCLA was very good at the game of basketball. The problem, as other teams could have instructed, is that Princeton didn’t play basketball. The Tigers played water torture. A fast break was when point guard Mitch Henderson walked the ball quickly up the court. Every second of the shot clock was squeezed out like a dish rag, both offensively and, hopefully, when the other team had the ball as well.”
The “water torture” was keeping the Tigers within striking distance. With the score at 19–16 with 38 seconds remaining in the first half, the Tigers had the ball with a chance to chip into the deficit before halftime. For the first time in the game, the Tigers’ signature backdoor cut would appear. Steve Goodrich caught the ball in the high post, and found a cutting Gabe Lewullis for the easy two.
“It was open … by eight miles,” Gregory recalled. “He could not have been more open than that.”
As the cut was made, the crowd collectively gasped, and then crescendoed to a deafening roar. For the first time in the game, there was audible excitement over the success of the underdogs, even though only four Princeton students were in the crowd — it was midterm week.
“You had UCLA fans, and you had everybody else,” Jerry Price, senior communications advisor and historian for Princeton Athletics, recalled in the documentary. “And everybody else became Princeton fans.”
As the fans continued to cheer, Charles O’Bannon missed a three-pointer, and the buzzer sounded for halftime. UCLA led 19–18 as the teams headed to the locker rooms. It was by far the Bruins’ lowest-scoring half of the season. “Make no mistake, there was panic,” Bruins player Kris Johnson told Time. “We had been scoring in the 80s [that] year. For us to get 19 points in the first half — there was that feeling where your heart drops.”
The Tigers, meanwhile, were calm and focused. “The zone we were playing was really working … so [the coaches] were just trying to tweak a few things,” Doyal recalled.
Goodrich netted the first basket of the second half, sending the crowd into an even greater frenzy than the one provoked by Lewullis’ first-half layup. The Tigers now had their first lead. The Bruins took the lead back quickly with a lay-in by Charles O’Bannon. Another backdoor cut and basket by Lewullis quickly returned the lead to the Tigers. The game went back and forth for much of the half, and at a slightly quicker pace.
In order to limit the Tigers’ chance inside, the Bruins switched into a zone defense, but Brian Earl and Sydney Johnson — whose form was so unorthodox that it sent one of the commentators, Quinn Buckner, into a fit of laughter — were each able to hit three-pointers, getting much-needed points on the board for Princeton. At the same time, however, UCLA was able to heat up from downtown, and as the Tigers slowly went cold, they built a lead by going on a 12–3 run.
The Bruins led 39–34 with seven minutes remaining. During a timeout, Indianapolis’ fans expressed their continued support for Princeton by booing loudly when hometown hero Reggie Miller flashed his UCLA hat courtside to the television cameras.
“I remember seeing that … on the jumbotron and being like … wow, something is brewing here,” Gregory said. As the jeers cascaded from the stands, momentum was mysteriously transferred, and things began to turn around for the Tigers.
With five minutes on the clock, Sydney Johnson (who scored a team-high 11 points) netted his third three-pointer of the half, cutting the lead to 41–37. “Sydney hit one from the parking lot,” Gregory recalled, laughing. “He was really the heart and soul of the team.”
Then, Doyal found Goodrich for a layup to cut the lead to 41–39. The crowd was getting behind Princeton more and more after each play, and this energy helped them to flip the script on the defensive end, stifling the Bruins. Henderson then found Sydney Johnson for a layup on a rare fastbreak, and the game was tied with 2:50 remaining. The crowd went wild, and UCLA became even more affected by the pressure, nearly throwing the ball away on every pass.
The game remained in gridlock for the next two minutes, with both teams turning over the ball and missing opportunities to take the lead. With 1:02 remaining, Sydney Johnson turned the ball over, and committed an intentional foul on UCLA’s Cameron Dollar, who had stolen it, to prevent him from making an easy layup. When an intentional foul is committed, though, the opposing team gets two free throws and possession of the ball. It seemed possible that the Bruins could score four or five points from the foul, and put the game out of reach.
Yet, as is the case with many upset stories, the Tigers caught a lucky break. Dollar missed both free throws. UCLA missed their shot on the ensuing possession, and Goodrich came up with a crucial rebound. With the clock at 21 seconds, Carril called a time-out to draw up the final play. The Tigers had the ball and the chance to win the game.
The coaching staff elected to run the same play used at the end of the first half, aptly named “center-forward backdoor.” This time, Lewullis would make the backdoor cut twice if it failed the first time. The identity of the person in the huddle who first proposed this idea has remained a mystery over the years, and has been the subject of a minor controversy. “I think [the story] has evolved over the years … Now, the story is that the four [coaches] came up with it together,” Gregory noted. “Coach Carril has said Joe [Scott] was big on emphasizing that [Gabe] gets the second cut.”
Regardless of who came up with the idea, the call was in. The Tigers inbounded the ball, and ran some clock before feeding the ball to Steve Goodrich in the high post. Lewullis made his move. Sure enough, Charles O’Bannon read the first backdoor cut. However, as Lewullis made his way back towards the perimeter, he lulled O’Bannon to sleep, and dashed behind him towards the basket. The bench slowly stood up like a breaking wave in anticipation.
“I remember watching it develop, and rising up off of the bench,” Gregory recalled. “I had that feeling, ‘oh my God, this is going to work.”
Goodrich turned his head and passed it to the darting Lewullis. “The pass was perfect,” Gregory recalled. Lewullis rose up, and laid the ball in beyond the outstretched arm of UCLA forward Kris Johnson to give the Tigers the lead with 3.9 seconds remaining. The crowd exploded, and the bench began jumping up and down with excitement. The Bruins rushed up the floor and called a timeout.
“Back home, we don’t get away with backdoor plays,” Sydney Johnson told reporters after the game. “We might have had a couple all year.” The Tigers were able to use their trademark play against UCLA, though, and to great success.
After a long officiating timeout called to determine the correct amount of time to be placed on the clock, as well as another Princeton timeout, the game was ready to be decided. “Everything was lining up, where there was going to be some kind of heartbreak … some kind of miracle shot,” Rosenfeld said.
The teams took the floor once more. The ball was inbounded to Toby Bailey, and he turned around for a baseline jumper. “From the bench’s angle, the shot looked good,” Rosenfeld remembered.
The shot flew past the rim, and the buzzer sounded. The Tigers had pulled off the upset, their first tournament victory in 13 years — taking down the 11-time champions. The bench rushed the floor. “The guys [on the court] were jumping, and [the bench] just ran,” Gregory recalled. “I remember screaming at Gabe [Lewullis] ... we all shared the joy of this happening.”
Carril thrusted his fists in the air in excitement as the team celebrated on the floor. “We just knocked off a giant,” he remarked to reporters after the game. The ‘Prince’ headline the next day read: “David 43, Goliath 41.”
As the team partied in the locker room, Hart had the presence of mind to retrieve a disposable camera he had purchased at the Indianapolis airport. With the camera, the team snapped the iconic photo below, which is the only known image of the team celebrating directly after the game.
“The locker room was like we just won the championship,” Gregory said. “The joy ride was continuing … Carril was so happy.”
The coaches celebrated back at the hotel. In anticipation of holding a send-off party for Carril later that night, team manager Miles Clark ’96 had filled his room’s bathtub with beers, used now to toast the team’s fantastic win. “It was just one of those times where you wanted to give everyone a hug,” Doyal remembered.
Teammates fanned out to various eateries around Indianapolis. Rosenfeld and Lewullis went to a local diner.
“Here’s Gabe [Lewullis], who had just hit one of the most memorable shots in NCAA tournament history, and we were just sitting in a diner with several folks, having late night breakfast,” Rosenfeld recalled, chuckling. “It was a nice contrast with what you would expect a team to do after a win like that.”
Gregory remembers the brief fame he and his teammates experienced in the hours following the game.
“I remember Jerry Price saying that someone saw his Princeton credit card and wanted his autograph,” he recalled. “[We went] to a mall, and we had our Princeton gear on … we were all celebrities.” A local pizzeria owner even gave Gregory his business card, and asked for a signed photo of him, despite the fact that he had not even had playing time in the upset.
“Even the dopes at the end of the bench that were cheering and hugging… people wanted us to sign pictures,” he said. Gregory also says that Goodrich received a standing ovation when dining at another “TGI Fridays-type establishment.”
Back on campus, students flooded Prospect Avenue and partied.
“The celebration was immediate, and dramatic,” an article in the ‘Prince’ read. “When a Ryder truck drove through Prospect Avenue, ecstatic Tiger fans grabbed hold of the still-moving vehicle.”
“I’ve never seen so much joy on campus as the result of a sporting event,” Gregory noted.
The players never got that rambunctious. “I don’t remember us celebrating at the hotel,” Gregory said. “We went straight to bed. We still had another game to play.”
Next up was Mississippi State. The Tigers were riding a wave of confidence, and players expected to win. Coaches were concerned with Mississippi State’s size and athleticism, and their two star players, Erick Dampier and Dontae’ Jones (both of whom would go on to play in the NBA).
Richard Williams, Mississippi State’s head coach, meanwhile, seemed impressed with the Tigers’ style, remarking that they played basketball "the way God meant it to be played."
In the end, the size, talent, and athleticism of Mississippi State won out. The Tigers were subject to a great deal of defensive pressure, and Mississippi State, which would go on to make the Final Four, dominated. Princeton lost 63–41.
“They played a really smart game,” Doyal said. “[Erick Dampier] did whatever he wanted. There was nothing we could do to stop them.”
Despite the loss, many on the team were content with the season. “We had two great wins back-to-back. Yes, we were sad to lose, but it wasn’t like we were expecting to make the Final Four,” Doyal joked. “We were just happy to be a part of the whole thing.”
“If we didn’t have to play another game, and lose, it would have been better,” Carril told Time.
Truthfully, the loss against Mississippi State is merely a footnote in the memories of the players and coaches from the 1995–96 Princeton men’s basketball team. Over the years, the UCLA game has come to stand by itself as a monument to the accomplishments of Carril and his offensive system. Carril’s uncanny ability to squeeze every ounce of potential out of his teams, through both his coaching style and strategy, was instrumental to Princeton’s success. This knack to elevate his team’s level of play is the true measure of his coaching greatness. It was only appropriate that Carril’s final win ended with a triumph of one of his offense’s trademark plays: the backdoor cut.
Throughout the game, the genius of other aspects of Carril’s offensive and defensive strategy, which the Tigers had run to perfection for almost three decades, were apparent. The Tigers accomplished the monumental task of neutralizing UCLA’s superior size, talent, and athleticism, simply through fundamentals, patience, and a pesky zone defense. The formula that had nearly worked against Georgetown, Villanova, and Arkansas in the early ’90s had borne its first 64-team NCAA tournament victory.
The victory was not a vindication for Carril; his influence as a basketball mind had been apparent to those familiar with the game for some time, regardless of his success in the NCAA tournament. Rather, the game stood as a confirmation to the general public that there was still a place for efficient, fundamental (and for many, “boring”) basketball in an era with high-flying, show-stopping stars like Michael Jordan.
In the years since Carril’s retirement, basketball has become even less rigid, systematic and fundamental. Yet, just as Carril was, today’s coaches, especially at the NBA level, are obsessed with efficiency, even though offenses are not nearly as methodical. “His approach was three-pointers and layups,” Rosenfeld noted. “Look how ahead of the curve he was on where basketball was going.”
The play of Carril’s ’90s teams had an enormous influence on the success of Bill Carmody, who succeeded him as head coach. Carmody led the Tigers to a 92–25 record in his four years as head coach. “The team learned how to win [in 1995–96],” Doyal said. Princeton won the Ivy League twice under Carmody, and beat the University of Nevada - Las Vegas in the 1998 NCAA tournament as a No. 5 seed. In that season, the team also achieved the No. 8 national ranking in the AP poll. Steve Goodrich ’98 led the team that year, winning the 1998 Ivy League Men’s Basketball Player of the Year Award and being named an All-American. Johnson won the award in 1997, and Brian Earl ’99 followed up by winning the award in 1999. It was the only time in program history that three different players had won the award in three consecutive years. The Tigers went 210–66 in the 1990s, good for the eighth-best record in the nation.
The impact of Carril’s coaching tree has extended past Carmody. All four Princeton head coaches since Carril were members of the 1995–96 team as players or coaches. Six team members have been head coaches around Division I, each using a version of Carril’s offensive system.
When Carril retired, he had the most overall wins, conference wins, and conference championships of any coach in Ivy League history. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame and the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 1997. Carril Court in Jadwin Gymnasium has borne Carril’s name since 2009.
Read the rest of our ‘Moments in March’ series here.