Sports: April 3, 1996
A week. Seven days.
There may have been more historic weeks in Princeton's basketball history, but not ones that many observers could remember. On Saturday, March 9, Princeton won an Ivy League playoff game over Penn. Just after the game, at the end of a 29-year reign, Pete Carril announced he would retire as coach of the Tigers. Five days later, on March 14, the Princeton team enjoyed one of its biggest victories ever-a stunning 43-41 upset of defending-champ UCLA in the NCAA tournament. The week ended March 16 with a disappointing loss to Mississippi State that ended the Tigers' run-and Carril's career at Princeton. In those seven days, the Tigers wrote another chapter in their collective basketball history, and the nation adopted them once again. But it all came this close to not happening at all.
The week actually began on Tuesday, March 5, with the last game of the regular season. Trailing by a game in the Ivy League standings, Penn could only force a playoff game by defeating Princeton in Philadelphia. But if the pressure was on Penn that night, it didn't bother the Quakers. And if Princeton came into that game with momentum after 12 straight Ivy wins, the Tigers' confidence disappeared before a raucous Palestra crowd and a national TV audience. Penn came away on the winning end of a 63-49 score. Despite a career-high 26 points from center Steve Goodrich '98, it was clear that if Princeton was to go to the NCAAs, the Tigers would need a significantly improved performance on Saturday night.
On March 9, the two teams, along with 5,503 fans, traveled to a neutral site-Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania-for the Ivy's first playoff since 1981. And when the two teams stepped onto the floor, it was as though a new Princeton had been assembled. Carril had made two changes to the starting lineup by inserting guard Mitch Henderson '98 and forward Gabe Lewullis '99. By half-time, the Tigers led Penn 26-17. They extended the lead to 13 points with just 8:55 left in the second half after two foul shots by Goodrich. But in uncharacteristic fashion, Princeton then allowed Penn to get back into the game. Missed foul shots and missed lay-ups, coupled with aggressive defense and a 10-0 scoring run, brought the Quakers back to a three-point deficit. Then Penn's Ira Bowman, the Ivy Player of the Year, drained a three-pointer from the top of the key to tie the game with 11 seconds remaining. Princeton tried to organize a play without calling a time-out, but the Tigers were unable to get a shot off by the end of regulation. With the score tied at 49, the game went to overtime.
By late in the game, Princeton was in serious foul trouble-Henderson had fouled out while Goodrich, Lewullis, and captain Sydney Johnson '97 had four fouls each. For the last few minutes of regulation, the Tigers had gone from playing a man-to-man to playing a zone defense (for the first time since December) in order to protect the players in danger of getting their fifth fouls. And with the season on the line, they stayed with the zone in overtime.
Despite his foul problems, Johnson took over the game in the five-minute overtime period. He hit a three-pointer, made two foul shots, and stripped Bowman to clinch the game. Johnson thus spared the Tigers a bitter loss, one that could have been Carril's last. Moments after winning the game, Carril walked into the Tiger locker room and wrote "I am retiring" on the blackboard. While rumors to this effect had been circulating, neither the team nor Carril himself was prepared for the real thing. After composing himself in the locker room, Carril said, "I was all choked up. I guess if we had lost I would have waited a few days."
With Carril's retirement, the Tigers' return to the tournament, and Princeton's marquee matchup with defending champion UCLA, Princeton was once again a national story. CBS maneuvered to show the game nationwide, and the press descended to cover what most assumed would be Carril's last game. Despite the attention, however, Henderson observed that "since the Saturday Penn game, Coach has been the same as he's always been. I think that a lot of people expected him to change, but he's had the same attitude."
With Princeton's trip to Indianapolis came a resurgence of interest in the team's infamous 1989-92 quartet of heartbreaking first-round losses (to Georgetown, Arkansas, Villanova, and Syracuse). Observers gave this year's team little chance against UCLA: the 13th-seeded Tigers were a 10-point underdog to the fourth-seeded Bruins in the Southeast region.
When the game started, it seemed certain Carril's career would indeed end that night. A 7-0 lead before the first TV time-out left many of the 31,569 in the RCA Dome wondering how ugly things would get. As Lewullis said later, "For the first couple of minutes, we were pretty intimidated," and it was obvious to all who were watching.
But when Chris Doyal '96 scored his only three points of the night, the Tigers and their fans breathed a sigh of relief. And by late in the first half, the Tigers had shown clearly that they had withstood UCLA's early barrage, and they looked considerably more relaxed and confident.
Princeton played the whole game in a matchup zone, the same defense the team had employed late in the Ivy playoff game, and UCLA was unsure how to attack a defense that had not appeared on any game films. As Carril said later, "We threw some junk at them that caused some trouble." But more important to the Tigers, the game officials were allowing "raking"-the pesky, slapping defense that was a trademark of the 1989-92 teams-without a whistle. Princeton ended up with seven steals, most coming when a Tiger stripped one of UCLA's big men.
By the latter part of the first half, Princeton's defense had gotten it back in the game. As important, UCLA had missed its opportunity to blow the game open early. The crowd, which had been quiet at UCLA's fast start, began to favor the Tigers. With the score at 19-16, Princeton's Lewullis set Charles O'Bannon up with a fake, then went backdoor in a play that Carril's teams have been running since 1967. Goodrich made the pass, and the half ended with the Bruins up by only one point, 19-18. While Princeton still trailed, there were good signs for careful observers: after the initial flurry, UCLA had settled in and the game was being played at a slow, defensive pace. And the tension in the RCA Dome, which helped Princeton's defense as much as anything else did, was building.
The second half began with the teams playing just as they had at the end of the first half-with each struggling to get baskets. Princeton took two short-lived leads, but UCLA came back, building a seven-point advantage for the second time in the game. With just over six minutes remaining and after another turnover, it seemed Princeton was destined for another frustrating first-round loss.
But then O'Bannon missed an open layup and the rebound came to Henderson. "I don't know how he missed it," Henderson said later, "but the ball just popped into my hands." Princeton had new life. After a time-out, Johnson hit a three-pointer, and the crowd came back to life. It was 41-37, UCLA. Then the Bruins' Toby Bailey missed, and Doyal found Goodrich for a reverse layup. It was 41-39. The roar in the RCA Dome grew louder. After an offensive foul was called on UCLA's Kris Johnson, the Tigers tied the game when Henderson found Princeton's Johnson for another layup. There was 2:58 left. For the next two minutes, both teams failed to score.
The most controversial call of the game came with a minute remaining and the score again tied. After dropping an inaccurate pass, Princeton's Johnson wrapped his arms around UCLA's Cameron Dollar, who had scooped up the loose ball and was on his way to an easy basket. Applying the letter of the law, the official ruled that Johnson had intentionally fouled Dollar, meaning UCLA would get two free throws plus possession of the ball. If the Bruins scored, it would probably put a Tiger win out of reach.
The earlier crowd noise was nothing compared to the din that faced Dollar as he stepped to the line. (Said Johnson, "The crowd noise and the boos hurt the Bruins more than it helped us, because it made them into the villains.") Dollar missed both foul shots, then UCLA missed a shot on its possession, and Goodrich got the rebound with 21 seconds left.
Now, for the first time in a tortuous series of near-wins, the Tigers had control of their own destiny. They had the ball, the shot clock was turned off, and the score was tied at 41. In what was for Carril an unusual move, the coach called a time-out, and the Tigers set up the same back-door play that had worked at the end of the first half. But when they tried it, Charles O'Bannon was prepared, and Goodrich could not make the pass to Lewullis as he cut to the basket.
As Princeton's offense has become publicized, it has become more difficult to run. In Ivy League games it is rare that a back-door works, because the teams are so familiar with the cuts. To compensate, Carril has put in more options, with second or even third attempts to go back-door. Though O'Bannon may have thought his job was done after he followed Lewullis on the first cut, the Tiger players kept their cool and continued to the second option. Lewullis circled back out to the three-point line and cut to the basket again. This time, O'Bannon turned toward the ball and lost sight of Lewullis, who grabbed the pass and laid it in. With 3.9 seconds remaining, the crowd exploded.
UCLA's Dollar raced the ball up court, and someone called time-out as he crossed the centerline. The clock showed 1.3 seconds, but the officials determined there were 2.2 seconds left after watching the replay. "We were upset about time being added to the clock," said Johnson, "because it gave them time to get a better shot. We were just sick and tired of losing these close games." Tiger fans everywhere feared the worst-this would be the cruelest loss of all. But Fate smiled on the Tigers this night. The ball went to Toby Bailey, and when his final shot glanced off the back of the rim, the celebration began in earnest. UCLA had gone the final 6:13 without scoring.
Considering the magnitude of their win, the Tigers seemed surprisingly composed after the game. Johnson attributed the win to "confidence in the system and confidence in our play." Carril, on the other hand, was speechless-even in front of the CBS cameras. Later, when Carril had recovered, he said, "A sterling pep talk never works unless the guys believe, and you can never talk a guy into being brave. They either have it or they don't." He added, "I've been in this a long time, and I'm obviously very happy. If we play UCLA 100 times, they might win 99. But this was the one time tonight, and tonight we won."
And so the Carril era-which might have ended in the playoff game at Lehigh-continued for two more days. The team had just hours to enjoy the victory before beginning to prepare for its next game.
Unlike UCLA, Mississippi State never allowed the crowd to become a factor. The Bulldogs played a ruthless and intelligent game against the Tigers. They utilized their big center, 6'1", 275-pound Erick Dampier, to punish the Tigers inside. Princeton had no opportunities to "rake" at the ball, because Dampier often got such good position that he merely had to turn and dunk. For the game, Mississippi State shot 60 percent; Princeton shot merely 34.8 percent. The contest was closer than the 63-41 final score indicated, but Princeton never made a serious run.
So, with the UCLA game as its climatic image, the Carril era ended quietly on Saturday. In a subdued locker room, talk turned to next season, and what to expect from new Coach Bill Carmody, Carril's assistant for 14 years. While the team seemed pleased with the selection of Carmody, no one seemed sure how much he will tinker with Carril's system. Mitch Henderson said, "Coach Carmody will pick up right where Coach Carril left off, but his own personality and experiences might mean that he will make subtle changes to the system."
Meanwhile, Carril rode off into the sunset (which, if the rumors are correct, means he'll become an assistant with the NBA's Sacramento Kings), with a last Ivy League title and the momentous UCLA win as final memories. "I will always be rooting for these guys, and following the box scores from wherever I am," Carril concluded Saturday. "But they are not going to miss me-life is like that-and they shouldn't miss me. When you are out that door, it's the next guy's turn."
-Matthew T. Henshon '91
Matt Henshon's last game as a Tiger was the 50-48 loss to Villanova in the 1991 NCAA tournament. When not following the current team, he practices law in Boston.
In the wide-ranging press conference that followed, Carril revealed that he has been planning to retire for "four or five months" and that his assistant coach of 14 years, Bill Carmody, would replace him. Carril said he felt his coaching had "slipped a little bit" and it was time for him to step down.
Carril came to Princeton in 1967, as the handpicked successor of Willem "Butch" van Breda Kolff '45, who was leaving to coach the NBA's Los Angeles Lakers. Carril's name was not yet synonymous with Princeton basketball or, for that matter, with any program. He was a relative unknown, taking over one of the best teams in the country. He came to Princeton with only one year of college coaching-at Lehigh University-under his belt. Before Lehigh, the 36-year-old Carril had coached 13 years at the high school level in his native Pennsylvania, in Easton and Reading. While at Reading, he coached Gary Walters '67, who later played under van Breda Kolff and who is now Princeton's Director of Athletics.
Carril inherited a team that began the season ranked eighth in the UPI preseason poll. The Tigers finished that year 20-6 and tied for first in the Ivies with Columbia, but lost a 92-74 playoff to the Lions. By the next year, the new coach had hit his stride. The Tigers cruised through a 14-0 Ivy season and into the first of 11 NCAA Tournament appearances under Carril. In 29 years at Princeton, he had only one losing season (11-15 in 1984-85), and one .500 season (13-13, in 1985-86). His career record with the Tigers is 514-261 (.663). With a career 312-98 (.761) Ivy League record, he never suffered a losing season in league play. His teams won or tied for the league championship 13 times. In 1975, Princeton became the only Ivy team to win the National Invitational Tournament.
Seated to Carril's left at the press conference was junior captain Sydney Johnson; he was asked to comment on the coach's retirement. Johnson, who had all but won the game for Princeton with his inspired performance in overtime, just stared at the crowd. Usually one of the most articulate Tigers, he swallowed hard a few times, and just managed to whisper "It's tough." Carril immediately interrupted. "Why's it tough?" he demanded, looking at Johnson and puffing on a cigar. "You just played a great game," Carril added. Johnson continued, "Since I've come here, I've learned so much about basketball, and he's the reason why. I still stink; I turn the ball over all the time, but God help me if I went somewhere else. And that's how he's affected every player. He brings out the best in you, no matter how he does it."
Discussing his reasons for retiring, Carril said, "I really think that my coaching has slipped a little bit." He continued, "I think that next year, they'll be better coached than they are this year. These are terrific kids, and they're getting me at a time when I have less understanding than they need." Never one to be accused of pulling punches, Carril seemed to suggest that today's players need to be coddled. "I'm just a little bit too rough, a bit too severe for the type of kid who comes to Princeton today," he said. "They need support-they don't need somebody like me."
He leaves the university with a good feeling, he says, but admits there are those at Princeton who do not look upon him fondly. "There are kids at Princeton University, if I were broke, they'd take up a collection and there'd be a hundred grand, right in my pocket. There are kids at Princeton University, if there was some kind of market, and I was on sale, they wouldn't give a nickel. That's what happens when you're a fairly uncompromising person. I have never confused understanding with compromise. When you're as direct as I am, that's going to happen."
This article was adapted from one that ran in the Town Topics of March 13.