Wednesday, February 6, 2013

"I'll Take That Up With God When I Get There"

TigerBlog was driving TigerBlog Jr. back from his high school last night when TBJ mentioned that the school had tied its big rival in hockey the night before.

Then he pointed out that it had been years since they'd beaten the other team.

TB pointed out that because it was a tie, they still hadn't beaten him.

Then he told him the story of when Pete Carril won his 500th game at Princeton, back in 1996, his final year with the Tigers. After the game, Carril was asked by the media to talk about some of his biggest wins, and he basically said "Well, you have the Georgetown game."

TB politely corrected him, saying "uh, Coach, you didn't win that one."

Carril can be forgiven for considering that game to be a win, because even as a loss, it was one of the biggest moments of his career. When Carril was being voted into the Hall of Fame, the selectors certainly had the night of March 17, 1989, at the Providence Civic Center, in mind.

TB thought he must have talked about the Georgetown game a million times to his son, though it dawned on him that he never actually had, probably because TB wasn't at that game.

TB's first year of covering Princeton was the newspaper was the 1989-90 season, which meant the year after the Georgetown game. Everywhere Princeton went outside the league early that season, the team was met by overflow crowds, all of whom wanted to see the team that almost knocked off top-ranked Georgetown, to see how these Tigers did it.

Remember, back then nobody else played what has become known as "the Princeton Offense." In 1989, Princeton was truly unique, and it made them a special team.

TB even wrote a story back then that made a comparison to the Harlem Globetrotters, though he's not exactly sure how he made the connection.

Anyway, TB tried to explain to TBJ the significance of that Princeton-Georgetown game. All these years later, as the NCAA tournament is approaching, the event owes a great deal to that one game.

In case you forgot, the Ivy League champions in 1986 (Brown), 1987 (Penn) and 1988 (Cornell) lost their first-round NCAA games by a combined 120 points, or exactly 40 points per game. The 1989 Tigers barely scraped their way to the league title, defeating Harvard on the final night, and then drew the No. 16 seed against the ultra-imposing, ultra-physical Georgetown Hoyas, the No. 1 team in the country.

Princeton was given no chance. Another 40-point Ivy loss seemed inevitable.

It was such a given that Princeton would get destroyed that there was talk that conferences like the Ivy League were about to lose their automatic bid, or a Division I-AA for basketball would be created.

Also, back then, the first two rounds were still on ESPN, since CBS didn't think there was value in the entire tournament. By the next year, CBS had spent more than $1 billion for the entire tournament.

So what happened?

Well, Georgetown won the game 50-49. Honestly, it's hard to watch the replay without thinking that Princeton had it and let it slip away.

Everyone knows the end, where Bob Scrabis and Kit Mueller had shots blocked by Alonzo Mourning, and then Carril's line asking if a foul should have been called: "I'll take that up with God when I get there."

TB went to YouTube to find some video of the game, which he's seen a bunch of times. He found a 22-minute version that had the ESPN studio with Dick Vitale famously saying Princeton had no chance, the announcement of the starting lineups and then the key plays from the game. It's a pretty good condensed version of what happened.

Princeton led 29-21 at the half. Were it not for some clutch foul shooting by Mourning, the Tigers would have won.

TB interviewed Scrabis on the radio years later, and Scrabis said that had the shot not been blocked, it was definitely going in.

The interest that the game generated came from the love of an underdog, the bigger the better, and there have been few underdogs bigger than Princeton that night. And TB isn't naive enough to think that there weren't racial undertones as well.

TB sees a few of the players for Princeton who played a huge role that night, guys now in their 40s, with kids of their own. This year will be 24 years since Princeton came oh-so-close to the biggest win Carril ever had, or at least a loss so big it felt like a win.

There have been great NCAA opening round games since then, including some big upsets. No 16 seed has beaten a one yet, though, still to this day, in the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

So much of the excitement of the NCAA tournament is from the first day, with the "you-never-know" possibilities that hang over every game. And so much of that excitement owes its gratitude to Princeton in 1989 and Pete Carril.

Oh, and as for his biggest win?

There can be cases made for maybe five games. TB will go with this one.

The video isn't as high quality, but the ending is definitely better.

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