Monday, March 14, 2016

Princeton 43, UCLA 41 - The 20th Anniversary

It was twenty years ago tonight, in a building that no longer exists, while some of the maddest that March has ever seen played out around him.

TigerBlog was along the sideline, near where it met the baseline, opposite the Princeton bench. He was kneeling. Andrea Joyce, the venerable broadcaster who was the CBS sideline reporter that night, was kneeling next to him.

Gabe Lewullis had just made his famous layup. The score was Princeton 43, UCLA 41.

TigerBlog's job was to get Pete Carril for CBS if Princeton held on. He and Joyce were stationed opposite Princeton's bench, in case he made a beeline for the lockerroom.

The place was the mammoth RCA Dome. Somewhere, TigerBlog supposes, his former colleague Vinnie DiCarlo still has the "This is not a public entrance to the RCA Dome" sign that he smuggled out of Indianapolis.

There was somewhere between 3.9 and 1.2 seconds left in the game. The officials were looking at replays, trying to figure that part out. And trying to figure out where the ball should be.

That was March 14, 1996.

Today is 20 years to the day later, and TigerBlog still remembers exactly what he was thinking. And so he told Andrea Joyce.

"If they take this away from us," TB said to Joyce, "that's really going to suck."

And he remembers what she said back to him. First she laughed. Then she said this: "not tonight. You'll be fine."

Even typing the words now, TigerBlog is chuckling.

Andrea Joyce was right though. You already knew that.

UCLA got the ball in to Toby Bailey. UCLA was the defending NCAA champ; Toby Bailey was one of the heroes of that 1995 title run.

Now he was trying to get the Bruins to overtime in the first round. UCLA was the fourth seed. Princeton was the 13th seed.

Pete Carril had announced his retirement five days earlier, after Princeton's 63-56 overtime win over Penn in the Ivy League playoff game. Had Princeton not won that game, it wouldn't have been anywhere near Indianapolis the following week.

Between the refs' reviews and the timeouts that were called, it took about seven minutes from the time Lewullis made his layup until play resumed. That was a long time to be kneeling down.

Actually, TB wasn't kneeling that whole time. His attention was diverted for a minute by an unforgettable face from his past, a man named Brian Linky. TigerBlog had grown up with Linky, whose family moved away after middle school.

During those seven minutes, here came Linky. He came down from behind the basket that UCLA would be shooting at, through the Mississippi State bench, who had stayed - along with everyone else in the building - to see what would happen in the Princeton-UCLA game.

The game didn't start out like it was going to be historic for anything other than Carril's last game. No, UCLA ran out to a 7-0 lead and looked unbeatable doing so.

But Princeton didn't fold. Nor did the Tigers play a perfect game. Instead, what they did was make UCLA play a completely imperfect game, hung around enough, took advantage of one huge break and then executed in a major way in the final few minutes to get the epic win.

It was 41-34 UCLA when the Bruins went for the knockout, but Ed O'Bannon left a layup short of a fastbreak. A long Sydney Johnson three made it a four-point game. A Steve Goodrich reverse layup off a nice pass from Chris Doyal, and then Mitch Henderson started another break with a steal that ended when Johnson tied it.

Then there was the intentional foul by Johnson on Cameron Dollar, who missed two foul shots, and a miss in the lane from Kris Johnson, rebound by Goodrich, Princeton ball, shot clock off.

And that ended with the impeccable center-forward play, Johnson to Goodrich to Lewullis - after Lewullis had cut along the baseline once to fake out O'Bannon and then the second time to actually get the pass.

Then came the delay.

Oh, and Linky. That's right.

Linky came down to the court through the Mississippi State band, holding a small instamatic camera. He handed it to the security guard while he yelled "take my picture with that guy," as he gestured to TigerBlog.

Now it was finally time. UCLA was going to inbound the ball. TigerBlog and Joyce were on the opposite side of the court, at the other end.

And now it was 20 years later. Mitch Henderson is no longer a sophomore on that team. Now he is the Princeton head coach.

Pete Carril? He'd had a long second career as an NBA assistant coach. Now he's retired, a common fixture in Jadwin Gym, where the court bears his name.

They are sitting together in Mitch's office. On the flatscreen above them is a replay of the UCLA game.

As they watch, Princeton's video staff of Cody Chruscial and John Bullis are filming them and their reactions. TigerBlog stands in the background.

He figures that in the last 20 years, he's watched the last five minutes more than Carril or Henderson. It certainly comes across that way as he watches them, watching themselves.

The most impressive parts are when they're silent. Why is that? It's not because their comment aren't good. They're actually great.

It's just that when they're silent, it's because they're awed by what they're seeing.

Why wouldn't they be? What they accomplished, along with the rest of the Tigers, was awesome.

TigerBlog considers himself a student of history. The UCLA game ranks very, very close to the top of the list of the greatest moments in Princeton Athletic history.

Maybe the 1965 Final Four in men's basketball tops it. On the other hand, after the close calls that Pete Carril had in the NCAA tournament from 1989-92 without actually winning one (four losses, 15 point total), the significance of having his career stamped with this win cannot be overstated.

There are other moments, of course, that warrant consideration. But the combination of the win and doing it in Carril's last season? A case can be certainly be made for this one.

Anyway, TigerBlog has been rambling a bit. He figures it took you about as long to get to this point as it took the game to resume.

Inbounds to Bailey. Airball.

And right at that moment, an AP photographer snapped the perfect picture, Henderson, leaping in the air, arms exulting in triumph, historic triumph, a triumph that has endured.

Princeton 43, UCLA 41.

Twenty years ago today.

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