Tuesday, March 17, 2009
It Was 20 Years Ago Today ...
The booklet spent about 15 years sitting in a converted refrigerator that now serves as a storage container. For the last five years, it made its way to a file cabinet. Every now and then it saw the light of day and retold its story, its amazing story, its story that continues to make you smile and shake your head and say "what if ..."
The title is "40 Minutes In March," and those 40 minutes were held 20 years ago today, March 17, 1989. It was on that night, at the Providence Civic Center, that 16th-seeded Princeton took on mighty No. 1-seeded Georgetown in what was supposed to be the last appearance ever by an Ivy League school – or school from any similar league – in the NCAA tournament.
Instead, Princeton pushed the Hoyas to limit, falling 50-49 only when Alonzo Mourning blocked shots by Bob Scrabis and Kit Mueller in the final six seconds. Were either one or both fouled?
"I'll take that up with God when I get there," Princeton coach Pete Carril said.
It can't be called the greatest game in Princeton athletic history, because the Tigers lost. Or did they?
Six years later, Carril won his 500th career game. In the postgame interview afterwards, he was asked to talk about his biggest wins.
"Well," he said, "you have to start with the Georgetown game."
"Uh, coach," Mark Eckel of the Trenton Times said. "You lost that game."
The booklet "40 Minutes In March" chronicles the game with the official box and play-by-play, as well as newspaper clippings leading up to the game and afterwards.
"It figures to be a blowout," Stan Hochman wrote near the end of a great column in the Philadelphia Daily News.
"It's difficult to imagine finding a bigger underdog," the Washington Times wrote.
Nowhere did anyone predict a Princeton win, or even a close game. Why would they?
The days of Princeton and Penn dominance of the league seemed over by the end of the 1980s. Princeton barely won the Ivy League title in 1989, needing a win over Harvard on the final night of the regular season to get back to the tournament in the first place.
The Tigers were 11-3 in the league in 1989 and looked ready to join the three previous Ivy champs (Brown in ’86, Penn in ’87 and Cornell in ’88) by getting blown out in the first round. How bad had it been? Well, those three had lost by a combined total of 120 points, an average of 40.0 per game. There was talk of taking away the automatic bid for the Ivy League and for leagues like it, as the tournament clearly had passed them by.
Certainly the 1989 game wouldn't be any better. Georgetown was the No. 1 team in the country, the Beast of the Big East, led by the freshman Mourning and featuring a pressure defense that had rattled the best teams in college basketball.
Then the game started. Mueller started the scoring with a five-foot hook shot, and the next two Princeton baskets came when Scrabis had back-to-back shots goaltended away. It was 8-4 Princeton at the first TV timeout, and the lead would swell to eight on several occasions, the last of which was when it was 29-21 Tigers are halftime. Princeton repeatedly exploited the pressure defense by going backdoor, and Mueller frustrated the bigger Mourning with his ability to play away from the basket, dribble and pass.
The TV audience began to grow and would become the highest rated college basketball telecast ever on ESPN. Before the game, Dick Vitale had said that if Princeton won the game, he would wear a cheerleader's uniform, and now that was becoming a real possibility. John Thompson III, who had graduated from Princeton a year earlier, was shown repeatedly watching his old team and coach play against his father and the team he had grown up with.
Princeton scored first in the second half to go up by 10, but the Hoyas came back. Georgetown took its first lead with a 7-0 run that made it 39-37 with 10:25 to play, but Princeton would regain the lead on a Scrabis layup. Charles Smith put Georgetown back up, but Matt Lapin answered with a three-pointer with 7:30 to go.
The arena couldn't get much louder, as the overwhelming underdog refused to go away. Neither team would lead by more than two for the final 11:44, and Princeton had its last lead at 49-47 on Jerry Doyle's backdoor layup with 1:55 to play. Mourning then made a pair of foul shots to tie it and one out of two with 23 seconds to play to put the Hoyas up 50-49. That set the stage for the final two Princeton attempts, the block of Scrabis with six seconds lefft and then of Mueller with one second to play.
In reality, Princeton sort of let the game get away at the end, with several chances down the stretch that didn't fall. Princeton didn't play a perfect game, but some of the numbers are amazing. Mueller hhad a nine-point, eight-assist night while playing all 40 minutes. Scrabis led the Tigers with 15 points; he too did not come out. Neither did George Leftwich, who played all 40 minutes and turned the ball over just once. Princeton had 14 assists on 21 baskets while turning it over seven times. Lapin scored 12 points and had four assists in 34 minutes off the bench.
For Georgetown, Smith shot 2 for 12 and finished with four points. The Hoyas had seven assists and 13 turnovers, but they did outrebound the Tigers 35-16. In the end, there was too much Mourning, who had 21 points and 13 rebounds.
The game itself was a beauty, but it's the game's legacy that was probably more important. For starters, it directly led to CBS's decision to purchase the entire men's basketball tournament after ESPN had the opening rounds for years, and that was really the birth of what is now March Madness. It saved the automatic bids for the lower conferences, as the thrill of watching to see if the 15th seeds (they have) and 16th seeds (not yet) can win a first round game against a giant.
More provincially, it was a springboard for the three consecutive Ivy titles that followed as Princeton became a Top 20 team within two more years. It also began the focus on the uniqueness of the Princeton Offense, a term that Carril came to hate, in all honesty.
The start of the 1989-90 season was a marvel, as everywhere Princeton went, fans flocked to see the team that had almost knocked off Georgetown and how they did it. Within 10 years of that game, Princeton had become a national power again; within 15 years the offense had spread to the point where almost every team from the NBA down through college and high school had adopted some of its principles.
It can be argued that Princeton athletics had bigger games than that one against Georgetown. Certainly the win over UCLA in 1996 is remembered with greater fondness. TigerBlog doesn't even remember any mention of Princeton-Georgetown as part of the Carril Court ceremonies that recently concluded.
In its historical context, though, that game is probably the single most important game ever for Princeton athletics.
Years later, TigerBlog interviewed Scrabis on the radio at halftime of a game at Jadwin and offered up the obligatory "were you fouled?" question.
"I don't know about that," Scrabis said. "But I do know that if he hadn't blocked it, it was going in."