Wednesday, March 9, 2016

20 Years Ago Today

Princeton-Penn 1996 playoff game box score

Of all of the great little anecdotes TigerBlog has from his nearly 30 years at Princeton, perhaps his favorite is the one where Pete Carril was being badgered by a sportswriter after a Penn game at the Palestra.

The writer, by the way, was Brian Dohn, then of the Trentonian. TigerBlog was a big Brian Dohn fan, though he lost touch with him years ago, after Dohn left to go cover the Dodgers.

Anyway, Princeton had just lost to Penn in the final game of the regular season for its eighth straight loss to the Quakers. The outcome of that game left the teams in a tie for the league title and set up a playoff game for the NCAA bid five days later.

It also led to this exchange:

Dohn: "Do you think Penn has your number?"
Carril: "I don't believe in that."
Dohn: "But sometimes a team just has another team's number."
Carril: "Yeah, I don't believe in that."
Dohn: "Yeah, but maybe they just have your number."
Carril: "I'm telling you I don't believe in that."

At that point, another question was asked. This was from Jerry Henry, then of New Jersey Network.

Henry: "Coach, what can you do differently to beat them in the playoff game?"
Carril (looking at Dohn): "Nothing ... if they have our number."

That's a great one. So was the game itself. Princeton 63, Penn 56, in overtime.

That was 20 years ago today.

There haven't been many weeks in TigerBlog's time here to rival the one of 20 years ago. It started with the loss to Penn in the Palestra, continued with the lead up to the playoff game, included that epic night exactly 20 years ago and then culminated a few days later in Indianapolis, when Princeton beat UCLA 43-41 in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

The UCLA win was the 514th and final one of Carril's Princeton career. If you ask any Princeton fan about the biggest days in the history of the men's basketball program, many will start with that game.

TigerBlog has heard several of the players on that team mention that the playoff game was even more special to them. Maybe it doesn't enjoy the lasting fame of the game a few days later. Maybe its highlights aren't shown every year as a symbol of "March Madness."

None of that matters. Without the win over Penn, there would be no UCLA.

TigerBlog's memories of that night 20 years ago are vivid.

The game was played at Lehigh's Stabler Arena, and TigerBlog remembers that it was freezing outside. And packed inside.

Wait. Before he gets into that, let him go back a day earlier. To practice at Jadwin Gym.

Penn did not have Princeton's number. What Penn did have was a psyched out opponent, and Carril and his coaches knew this. By the way, that was one of the greatest coaching staffs ever assembled, with Carril, Bill Carmody (whose Holy Cross team is playing tonight in that same building in the Patriot League tournament final), Joe Scott and John Thompson.

That week of practice was different. It wasn't about X's and O's. It was about, for lack of a better term, toughness. They push? Push back. That was the message.

And that's how the game was.

The biggest strategic difference was to put freshman Gabe Lewullis into the starting lineup, after he had played 12 minutes and did not score in the game at the Palestra. Lewullis would lead Princeton with 15 points, and he would be the only player on either team to play all 45 minutes.

More than just his offense, there was the effect that Lewullis had on defense. Donald Moxley, Penn's leading scorer at the Palestra with 16 points, had none in the playoff game, shooting 0 for 14 from the field.

Princeton jumped out quickly on Penn in the playoff game and led by nine at the break. When pushed, Princeton pushed back. Toughness, on this night, was not a problem.

Penn of course did not go quietly and came all the way back to tie it on a long Ira Bowman three - when nobody picked him up - from the top of the key in the final seconds of regulation. It was a shocking turn, and it left maybe 95 percent of the people in the building convinced that Penn really did have Princeton's number, that overtime would be a formality.

It wasn't.

The two biggest plays in the OT were a Sydney Johnson three-pointer as the shot clock wound down with just under a minute to go and then a steal and two foul shots from Brian Earl.

On any other night, the game would have been the big story. Not on this night though.


While the celebration went on, TigerBlog retreated back to where the Princeton locker room was. He knew his responsibility at that moment was to get Carril and a few Princeton players to the interview room, and the celebration was starting to go on for awhile. He knew Lewullis, a graduate of nearby Allentown Central Catholic High School, would be the big story.

Until he walked in the locker room.

The only one in there was Carril. There was an entry room and then a team room off to the left. There was a blackboard to the left as you entered the team room. Carril sat on a bench, and if you didn't know the final score of the game, you wouldn't be able to tell by looking at Carril, who was showing little emotion.

TigerBlog went to stand in the back of the team room. Carril was legendary for taking a long time with the team after games, and on a night like this, TigerBlog's presence in Carril's field of vision might remind him that he had to speed it up a little.

That's when TigerBlog saw it.

Written on the board was a shocking message, written by Carril seconds before TB walked into the room.

"I'm retiring. I'm very happy. Bill Carmody is the new Princeton coach."

From where he stood, TigerBlog could see each player as he came into the room and then could see the reaction as each saw the blackboard.

Then it was off to the interview room, where Carril dropped his bombshell publicly. As TB walked with Carril, he knew what was coming, and that would be a stunned media. And a confused one, which now had to abandon the Lewullis storyline for the Carril one.

The headline the next day in the Trenton Times? "Princeton Wins, Carril Quits."

What followed was the build up to UCLA, which figured to be it, and then the shocking victory that ensured it wasn't.

Maybe the night in Lehigh faded a bit because of the UCLA win. Not maybe. Definitely.

But it was a wild night. A special night. A night when Princeton and Pete Carril made some history.

Have his number? No. Penn didn't.

Pete Carril didn't believe in that.

For good reason.

That was 20 years ago today.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Brilliant writing! Thank you TB. Brings back wonderful memories of a magical time in the rich history of Princeton basketball. Hard to believe 20 years have passed.