Thursday, March 17, 2011

March 17, 1989: Mourning saves the day

PROVIDENCE, R.I. - "A 16 seed has never beaten a 1 seed in the NCAA tournament." That's the common refrain every year as basketball fans fill out their tournament brackets. That's the one piece of advice that even those who don't know about basketball can give. A 16 has never beaten a 1. The 1's are 104-0 against the 16's.

In 1989, though, that wasn't such a big deal. The tournament had been expanded to 64 teams only four years earlier, so at that point, the 0-16 record of the 16 seeds didn't seem that important. When the 1989 tournament started and East Tennessee State scared Oklahoma on the very first day, there were probably many people who thought it was just a matter of time before a 16 got that victory over a 1.

But nobody expected it to be this game.

A 30-point underdog to the powerful Georgetown Hoyas, the Ivy League champion Princeton Tigers went into Providence for their first round game hoping to just stay with the top seed. They did more than that. As a nation watched transfixed in Irish pubs around the country, the Ivy Leaguers used backdoor cuts and quick passing to stick with the Hoyas all game long. Everybody was waiting for when Georgetown would make its run, only the run never came.

But Princeton's gameplan was executed perfectly. The Tigers spread the floor, giving their center the ball at the top of the circle and forcing Georgetown's all-america center Alonzo Mourning up to the free-throw line. With the shot-blocking Mourning out of harm's way, the Tigers could run their backdoor passes all day long.

In the final minutes, when it was obvious that Princeton wasn't going away, Mourning took over. He scored seven of Georgetown's final nine points, including the free throw that gave them a 50-49 lead in the final minute. Princeton got the ball for a final opportunity, but Mourning blocked two final attempts in the final eight seconds, saving Georgetown from the ultimate embarrassment.

That wasn't quite the whole story, though. Most people watching felt that Mourning committed a foul on his final block attempt, that Princeton should have been at the free-throw line to try to win. The referees didn't see it that way, and the no-call is still viewed as one of the more controversial finishes in tournament history.

While Princeton didn't get the job done, they had established themselves as the team nobody wanted to play in the first round. Coach Pete Carril became a household name for his wonderful gameplan and game management against the Hoyas. And Princeton's close call set the stage for the game just seven years later, when the Tigers shocked the world and finished the upset against UCLA.

March 17, 1886: ST. LOUIS - The first story on the front page of the very first issue of The Sporting News talked about how the defending National League Champion Chicago White Stockings (now Cubs) had just arrived in Hot Springs, Arkansas, for an early form of spring training. From that simple beginning, the paper grew to become the preeminient sports publication in the United States for decades to come. While its importance is diminished quite a bit by the advent of the Internet and scores of sports information papers and magazines, for years, The Sporting News was it. For decades, TSN was the only place where every boxscore of every Major League game was published, and the newspaper was as much a part of the American sports fabric as baseball and football. Without the success of The Sporting News, there is no Sports Illustrated, no ESPN, nothing. It was the original, the one of a kind. And 125 years later, it is still being published.

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