Princeton all-time moment No. 4: 1997-98 Ivy champions

We’re counting down the top 10 moments in each Ivy school’s history as part of our Ivy League at 60 retrospective. We’re starting with Princeton because that’s where Joseph Stalin’s daughter defected to. In Soviet Russia as in the United States, Princeton offense runs you!

Bill Carmody, an honorary member of the Class of 1975, joined Pete Carril’s staff in 1982. He spent the next 14 productive and mostly glorious seasons watching and learning. When Carril decided to retire after winning his final Ivy title on a heart-stopping three pointer by Sydney Johnson in a playoff against Penn (who else?), he made it known that no one was better qualified to succeed him than Bill Carmody.

Bill’s all too-brief four year tenure as head coach was among the most dominant periods ever in the long history of Tiger hoops. His overall record was 92-25. In the Ivy League he was 50-6, including a remarkable 28-0 in 1996-97 and 1997-98.

The 1997-98 team will be remembered, and honored, as one of the best ever to don the orange and black. This outstanding group of players was led by future coaches Brian Earl and Mitch Henderson, who were very ably supported by Steve Goodrich, Gabe Lewullis, James Mastaglio, Mason Rocca and Nate Walton. This team was a potent scoring juggernaut on offense and a stingy man-to-man machine at the defensive end.

Princeton opened the season by stunning the No. 22 Texas Longhorns, 62-56. Six more wins followed in succession. On Dec. 13, the undefeated Tigers squared off against No. 2 North Carolina. The Tar Heels were relieved to escape disaster in the low scoring affair, 50-42. A week later, the Tigers rebounded nicely against a second ACC foe, Wake Forest, winning by a score of 69-64.

Princeton wrapped up the non-league portion of its schedule by winning the Holiday Festival at Madison Square Garden just after Christmas.

The Tigers romped through the Ivy League. Only Penn managed to come within six points of Princeton in a largely meaningless season ender at the Palestra. The Tigers closed out the regular season at 26-1 and were ranked in the top 10 in every significant national poll.

For once, the Ivy representative was awarded a lofty No. 5 seed in the East Region of the NCAA Tournament. UNLV’s Runnin’ Rebels would face the Tigers in the first round at Hartford. Starting slowly, the Tigers trailed 20-15 with nine minutes left in the first period. Would the Tigers be the latest No. 5 seed to fall to a No. 12? Not this time. Over the next eight minutes, the Tigers fashioned a devastating 20-0 run to close out the half with a 15-point lead.

Staving off UNLV’s expected run, the Tigers maintained control in the second stanza to win 69-57, as Earl and Henderson combined to score 40 points between them.

Two days later, the Tigers’ season for the ages came to a close at the hands of No. 4 Michigan State of the Big Ten. The Spartans raced to a quick 10-0 lead threatening to send the Tigers home with their tails dragging. Princeton showed why it belonged, fighting back to tie the game at 15. The Spartans’ two- point lead at the half had everyone in the arena on the edge of his or her seat.

The Spartans’ great guard, Mateen Cleaves, lived up to his All-American billing in the second period, single-handedly putting the Tigers in a deep hole, and a seven-point deficit with just under four minutes to play. Once again, the Tigers responded as champions always do. With two minutes left the Tigers clawed back to a 54-54 tie. Cleaves nailed a huge three pointer with a half minute to go. The Spartans, like the Tar Heels, survived the pesky Tigers. Cleaves would subsequently lead the Spartans to a national championship.

The end of this season closed out a truly remarkable run for this team, perhaps the most talented group of Tigers ever. Well done, Bill Carmody, a Tiger forever regardless of where he might hang his hat.

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