Monday, March 17, 2014

Silver Anniversary

TigerBlog knows exactly where he was 25 years ago today, and it wasn't the arena that was then known as the Providence Civic Center, where Princeton lost to Georgetown 50-49 in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Nope, TigerBlog was on a first date with a young woman named Shelley. He listened to the first half of the basketball game on his way to pick her up, and he was astonished that the Tigers were even in the game, not to mention up 29-21 at the break.

And then it was date time, which meant he couldn't watch the game on TV or listen on the radio anymore.

This was 1989, the year before TB started covering Princeton basketball. Back then he was just a Penn alum who covered high school sports in the general Princeton area, which meant he had no connection to the Tigers. He'd never even met Pete Carril at that point.

For that matter, he hadn't met Chuck Yrigoyen and Dave Brody, who were doing the game on the radio. Little did he realize then that a year later he'd start doing games with Brody as well and that Yrigoyen would become a good friend for the last 25 years as well. 

Still, he couldn't help but pull for the Tigers. Georgetown was his least favorite team, because he hadn't met John Thompson yet either. Now, 25 years later, Georgetown is his favorite team, other than Princeton.

Anyway, there was no internet, no score app on his smartphone, which didn't exist either. There was no Twitter. Nothing. No way to find out the score of the game, other than to put the radio on the sports update at 15 minutes after the hour, while trying to focus on his date as well.

That's how he found out that Princeton had come so close and just fallen short.

And Shelley? It wasn't meant to be, though he saw her for nearly a year. She was a really good tennis player, TB remembers, and he beat her once. Years later, a mutual friend told him that Shelley had told her that she had let him win, something that still bothers him to this day. Did she or didn't she?

And now a quarter-century has passed since that first date.

That was 25 years ago today. Princeton-Georgetown. The game that saved March Madness.

At least that's what the current issue of Sports Illustrated says, in a huge article written by Sean Gregory and Alex Wolff. Of course, they're both Princeton alums, and Gregory is a former basketball player.

Still, there's no denying that the premise is correct. Princeton and Carril did in fact save March Madness in those wild 40 minutes.

As for Gregory, his nickname is "Bones," which was short for "skin and bones," as TB recalls. He's a tall, lanky lefty shooter who didn't get much playing time in his career, though he did knock down a pressure three in a game against Penn one year.

Since graduation, he's worked his way to the top of his profession, covering sports for Time magazine. He is one of TB's favorite writers, and not just because he's one of TB's favorite Princeton basketball players.

One of TB's favorite stories about Gregory is from the 1996 season, when Jason Osier left the basketball team to concentrate on lacrosse. Osier would return to the basketball team the following year, by the way, and he would play basketball and lacrosse on the same day.

When Osier left the team, he was getting consistent minutes off the bench. Mark Eckel, who was covering Princeton basketball then for the Trenton Times, asked Carril what he was going to do without Osier, and it led to this actual exchange:

Carril: "We may have to try some different things. We may have to use Bones."
Eckel: "What's Bones?"

Eckel covered the Princeton-Georgetown game as well. Harvey Yavener chose instead to go with Trenton State College to the Division III Final Four in Ohio that weekend, which sent Eckel to Providence.

And why? Because Princeton didn't have a chance, that's why.

Of course Princeton was going to get blown out. Georgetown was the No. 1 team in the country, a dominant, intimidating, physical group that was going to wipe the Tigers out.

Princeton was lucky to be in the tournament at all. The Tigers barely won the Ivy League, defeating Harvard on the final night of the regular season to get into the NCAA tournament. Before Princeton got into the league, it lost by seven to Delaware, a team that would go 6-8 in the East Coast Conference.

There was a huge portion of the country who thought the Ivy champ shouldn't have that luxury. After all, the previous three Ivy champs - Brown in 1986, Penn in 1987 and Cornell in 1988 - lost their NCAA games by a total of 120 points, or an average of 40 per game.

The talk was of taking away automatic bids to the tournament for the lower leagues. Also, the game was televised on ESPN, because CBS didn't value the opening round of the tournament enough to put it on.

And that all changed in those wild 40 minutes.

Princeton started quickly and never went away. In fact, the Tigers led by 10 early in the second half. Were it not for Alonzo Mourning, Georgetown never would have come close to winning.

Ultimately, the game came down to two blocked shots by Mourning in the final 10 seconds, one against Bob Scrabis and then again against Kit Mueller as time expired. It's possible that Mueller was fouled on his shot, leading Carril to very famously say "I'll take that up with God when I get there."

When the whistle didn't blow, the game ended with Georgetown up 50-49. The Tigers lost, though Carril also famously referred to the game as one of his biggest wins on the night he racked up his 500th at Princeton, leading TB to remind him that technically Princeton had lost.

Still, even in defeat, the Tigers accomplished a lot. A whole lot.

First, CBS went out and paid $1 billion for the rights to the entire tournament. The idea of taking automatic bids away from small conferences disappeared forever, while the term "Cinderella" became a staple of the NCAA tournament vernacular and one of the most appealing parts of the entire event. In many ways, a big first-round upset by a high double digit seed is bigger than the Final Four itself.

To this day, no No. 16 seed has defeated a No. 1 seed in the NCAA men's basketball tournament. The 15th-seed has won a few times, most recently a year ago, when Florida Gulf Coast knocked off Georgetown. But no No. 16 has. Most haven't come close. But that doesn't mean people don't love to watch and see and hope. 

As for Princeton, it wasn't quite the start of the spread of the Princeton offense, something that would happen for real after the 1998 team went 27-2 and reached the national top 10. But the Georgetown game did vault Princeton and Carril into the national spotlight.

TigerBlog began to cover the team in the 1989-90 season, and everywhere the Tigers went, they drew huge crowds, all of whom wanted to see how they had done it. TB likened them at the time in some ways to the Harlem Globetrotters.

And, as the story in SI says, there was a racial element to it all, with the predominantly white Princeton team and the all-black Georgetown team.

But Jerry Doyle, who played a huge role in the game, summed it up perfectly when he said at the end of the story that it was really just about a bunch of guys who loved to play basketball and who loved to play together.

There have been so many great nights in Princeton Athletic history, going all the way back to when it began in 1864. There have been few nights to compare with the one from 25 years ago today.

That was the night that Princeton almost beat Georgetown. It was a magical performance, a game that nobody will ever forget.

It was truly the game that saved March Madness.


Jeff Zeichner said...

25 years ago today I had only 2 kids. My wife was pregnant with our third. We lived in a small house, our first, in Fieldsboro, NJ. And it was tournament time. As a lifelong Princeton fan (going back to Bradley in basketball and Cosmo Iacavazzi in football), Selection Sunday was always an exciting hour. Unlike today's more open Ivy League, Selection Sunday meant finding out where either Penn or Princeton were going and who they were playing in the NCAAs. Both teams were always decided underdogs (and more so as the years went on), yet both had occasional epic runs through the tournament. As Yrigoyen's article points out, the 1989 selection show went quickly for Princeton fans. Within a minute or so, we found out that we were playing Georgetown - GEORGETOWN! - in a 1/16 first round matchup. Carril's comment regarding Princeton's chances was priceless. As the article wonderfully describes, and as many know, this became an iconic game in college basketball history. I sat down on my couch to watch the game, and ended the first half standing, with my hands on my head, and my voice getting hoarse from yelling with the excitement of what looked to be the possibility of one of the greatest upsets in American sports history. I watched most of the second half on my knees on the floor, my heart pounding as Georgetown came back, and as the lead swung back and forth in the final few minutes. At the final Mourning ball/arm block of Kit Mueller's last attempt I hung my head, closed my eyes, slumped a little and sighed deeply and sadly (there may have been an F bomb or three). Princeton's valiant and glorious effort served to validate (for those who needed such) its program, in an age when Ivy League sports were surely not what they once were on the national stage. It also was a much needed boost for all "small' conferences around the country, who were then under siege from the majors. Many call this the greatest "loss" ever. Still others simply say that Princeton beat Georgetown 49-50. I prefer the latter.

Anonymous said...

I disagree with the premise that Princeton's 1989 "near miss" saved March Madness. It seemes to me that it did stop the idea of "play in" games reserved only for certain traditionally weak conferences,