Monday, March 14, 2011

March 14, 1996: Through the back door

INDIANAPOLIS - Princeton coach Pete Carril was about as decorated as a basketball coach could be in the Ivy League. He became Princeton's head coach in 1967 and led the Tigers on a run of absolute brilliance, at least as far as the Ivy League was concerned. He never saw his Tigers finish below fourth in the Ivy League and had become the only coach in Division I history to win 500 games without the benefit of scholarships to give his athletes.

The only thing Carril was missing in his long and luxerious career was an NCAA tournament victory. He had plenty of chances, having taken the Tigers to the tournament 10 times, but they always seemed to fall just short, most famously in 1989, when they lost to top-seeded Georgetown by one point, still the closest a 16 seed has ever come to beating a 1 seed. Now, in 1996, Carril's 11th NCAA tournament would be his last chance to get that elusive NCAA victory.

On the other sideline, UCLA had the pedigree, wore the most regal four letters in college basketball across its chest. You didn't need much prompting to be reminded of what they had done in the past: 11 national championships (including the most recent), 15 Final Four appeareances (at that time), 32 NCAA tournament appearances. It was all there. They were a formidable opponent for Princeton to be facing as the Tigers tried to give Carril an NCAA victory to go out on.

Carril's Princeton teams were known for two things: a precision passing offense featuring a lot of movement without the basketball and back cuts toward the basket, and a suffocating, relentless defense that didn't give opposing offenses a chance to breathe. That defense was on in full force in the first round game against UCLA, as the Tigers hounded the defending champions from the opening tip. And while the defense was dominating, Princeton's offense was doing just enough to stay in the game, making shots nobody expected them to make, keeping things close.

Still, though, it was a surprise to everybody when Princeton brought the ball down court with 20 seconds left in the game, holding the ball with the game tied at 41. From there, UCLA had to know what was coming - the backdoor pass along the baseline for a layup. Carril's teams had been running that play since 1967, the year UCLA won the first of their seven straight national championships.

But there's a difference between knowing what play was coming and knowing how to stop it. And when Gabe Lewullis got the perfect bounce pass from the high post and laid the ball up beautifully, giving Princeton a 43-41 lead, Carril couldn't help but jump up and down, his thinning hair getting messy, his face unable to hide joy. UCLA had one more chance, but when they missed, the Princeton players mobbed their coach, as if to say thank you for the 30 seasons of greatness on the bench.

Carril's hands were in the air, and tears were streaming down his face. After 30 years, and so many near-misses, he had been given the greatest retirement present of all.

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