Princeton all-time moment No. 1: Carril goes out a hero

We’re counting down the top 10 moments in each Ivy school’s history as part of our Ivy League at 60 retrospective. We started with Princeton because, hey, it”s Princeton.

The 1995-96 season was Pete Carril’s 29th at the helm of the Tigers. At 65 years of age, he was slowing down, inevitably, and he knew it. His last great run had ended in 1992 with a fourth straight Ivy title, the only time one class achieved such a streak. Since then his teams were Ivy also-rans, failing to defeat archrival Penn even once in the last three years. His top assistant, Bill Carmody, was entering his 14th year on the bench. Carmody clearly aspired to run his own show. Retirement rumors would swirl around Carril all season.

Carril looked forward to the campaign with a degree of optimism. The team would be young, the lone returning senior was Chris Doyal. Junior captain Sydney Johnson was a scorer, defender and passer in the classic Tiger mold. Sophomore center Steve Goodrich would become the anchor for this squad, winning All-Ivy status this year. Sophomore Mitch Henderson and freshman Brian Earl rounded out the starting five for much of the year. Freshman Gabe Lewullis and sophomore James Mastaglio would also play key roles; In Lewullis’ case, an historic role.

The Tigers finished the non-league portion of the schedule at 7-4, a good start. The Ivy League campaign opened in Jadwin with Penn on January 6. The Quakers ran their winning streak against the Tigers to seven by a razor-thin margin, 57-55. It would be Princeton’s last loss for two months.

Once again, the Ivy League race came down to another battle between Princeton and Penn.  The final game was set for the Palestra on March 5, matching the first-place Tigers, at 12-1, against the second- place Quakers, a game behind at 11-2. It was “win or go home” for Penn coach Fran Dunphy’s crew. Penn rose to the occasion convincingly, extending its winning streak against the Tigers to eight in a 63-49 beat down. Once again, these two enemies needed an extra game to determine the Ivy’s NCAA bid.

Carril had a piece of the Ivy title, his 13th, but two losses to the co-champion Quakers made this one far from satisfactory.

What turned out to be Carril’s last Ivy game was a classic. The scene was Lehigh’s Stabler Arena, which had hosted back-to-back playoffs between the Tigers and Quakers in the early 1980s. The split in those games made this one the Stabler playoff rubber match. Penn entered the game as the favorite after handling the Tigers twice in the regular season, capped by the two-touchdown drubbing less than a week earlier. A packed house of 5,503 followed the teams to Bethlehem. Carril made two key changes in his starting lineup for the playoff, inserting Henderson at guard and Lewullis at forward. The revamped Tigers started smoothly, scoring 26 first-half points while yielding a stingy 17 to the Quakers. Two Goodrich free throws extended the lead to 13 with 8:55 to go.

Of course, as we have seen, no lead is safe in these games. Penn mounted an extraordinary 10-0 run to draw within three. Ivy Player of the Year Ira Bowman drained a three-pointer from the top of the key with 11 seconds remaining. When the Tigers were unable to score, the tally was tied at 49 at the end of regulation. Momentum had clearly shifted toward the Quakers.

The Tigers had been forced into a zone defense by foul trouble. Henderson was out, Goodrich, Lewullis and Sydney Johnson had each accumulated four personals. With little choice, Carril stayed in the zone in overtime, something he had not done since December.

It was time for Sydney Johnson, the Tiger captain, to rise to the occasion. He took over the game in overtime with two clutch free throws and a key three-pointer. On defense, his steal from Bowman was the clincher as the Tigers won 63-56. The Tigers’ title claim was validated and the Quakers’ streak was snapped at 8. Most importantly, the Tigers were heading to the NCAA Tournament. A choked up Carril wrote a note on a locker room blackboard: “I am very happy. I am retiring.” What a way to go!

The retirement announcement suddenly cast the Tigers into the national spotlight as the first round approached. Any Tiger loss would mark the end of Carril’s legendary career. That it would come in the tournament in which his teams had always proved to be a worthy and often pesky foe was fitting, indeed.  When the announcement that the Tigers, as a 13 seed, would face the defending national champion UCLA Bruins at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, it was widely assumed that the matchup would be the last in his career.

CBS maneuvered to broadcast the game nationally as the second contest of the Thursday night doubleheader. An astounding crowd of 31,569 filed in to the sprawling RCA Dome hoping to see some history made. UCLA’s Jim Harrick made no effort to hide his displeasure at receiving a 4 seed and being sent across the country. He believed his title defenders deserved more respect from the NCAA Selection Committee. Harrick found himself in the classic “No Win” situation. It would be the last game he coached for the Bruins.

Things started well for the defending champions, as they cruised to a 7-0 lead before the first TV time out. The befuddled Tigers looked intimidated by the talented Bruins. Lewullis acknowledged later that the team was somewhat intimidated at that point. Chris Doyal got the Tigers on the board and the defense, a matchup zone that had been effective against Penn, kept the Tigers casino online in the game. UCLA was clearly surprised to face the zone. The Bruins were unable to capitalize on the fast start, and, as halftime approached, the lead was down to three.  A Lewullis back door cut on Charles O’Bannon set up a Goodrich feed for a layup sending the Tigers to the locker room trailing, 19-18. The crowd, which had been sitting on its hands expecting a rout, exploded. The play was vintage Carril and was run by every Tiger team since 1967. Most of the 31,000 fans stayed for the second half and most of them were now solidly behind the Tigers.

The Tigers played the Bruins on even terms throughout much of the second half, even managing to grab the lead briefly on two occasions. But these Bruins had a title to defend and they would not yield without a struggle. Slowly but surely, the Bruins asserted their talent and strength to take control of the contest. With six minutes left the Bruins had a seven-point lead and, after a Tiger turnover, the ball as well.

When the Bruins blew an easy layup, the Tigers had life. Johnson made a three. A missed shot and rebound enabled the Tigers to sneak back within two on a Goodrich reverse layup: Bruins 41, Tigers 39. An offensive foul on UCLA gave the Tigers the ball and the chance to tie. Henderson to Johnson for another layup tied the game at 41 with 2:58 to go. Neither team could score in the next two minutes. And then it appeared that disaster struck the Tigers.

With about a minute left, UCLA’s Cameron Dollar corralled a loose Tiger pass and appeared headed for an easy layup that would have given the Bruins the lead. Tiger captain Johnson determined that Dollar would have to beat the Tigers from the line. His bear hug of Dollar was called an intentional foul. One old Tiger alum, seated next to Mrs. Bill Carmody, jumped up and loudly proclaimed that Johnson’s foul was “stupid.”

The deafening crowd noise rattled Dollar, who missed both free throws! Without looking at her seatmate, Mrs. Carmody drily observed, “Doesn’t seem so stupid now, does it?” A Goodrich rebound of a Bruin miss gave the Tigers the ball with 21 seconds left.

Although not inclined to take a timeout in this situation, Carril did so in order to set up the same play that ended the first half: a backdoor cut by freshman Lewullis. O’Bannon was prepared this time, refusing to allow Lewullis any room. Lewullis retreated to the three-point line to execute option two. This time, the same cut caught O’Bannon turning toward the ball. The Goodrich pass was on the money, as was the layup from the latest freshman to enter the Tiger pantheon of heroes.  With 3.9 seconds left, the Tigers had the lead, 43-41. A desperation shot missed as time expired and the greatest win in Tiger history was safely in the books. The national champions had been held scoreless for the final 6:19.

The Carril era ended two days later at the hands of Mississippi State, a Final Four team. Bill Carmody was installed as the Tigers’ new coach soon after the season closed. Pete Carril was offered a position as an assistant coach of the NBA’s Sacramento Kings, whose general manager was former Tiger great Geoff Petrie. He gladly accepted and closed out his coaching career mentoring players and coaches in the big leagues. Today, in retirement, he lives near Princeton and attends games frequently, sitting in his seat perched high above the basketball court which shall forever bear his name.

Writer’s note: I am indebted to Matt Henshon ,’91, a fine Tiger player, for his account of the final weeks of the 1996 season that appeared in the Princeton Alumni Weekly in April 1996. Sean Gregory, a member of the 1996 team, wrote an article for Time in 2011 containing his Reflection on a Historic Upset. It’s marvelous and still available here

3 thoughts on “Princeton all-time moment No. 1: Carril goes out a hero

  1. I remember when I read of Coach Carrill’s retirement. Rumors may have swirled, but the world was different. In Las Vegas Nv, I heard none. I graduated from U Penn in 1980, but I have always rooted for Princeton. Pete Carrill is a hero. When I logged on to Computer Sports World, I saw the title, Carrill retires. I wrote the number down, entered it to get to the article, yes that is how it worked in the early internet days, and I began to cry as I read of Carrill’s decision. I cried long and hard. I had no where to turn, no one to call, after all, who would understand.
    When I saw Princetons draw, I was extremely happy. Clueless UCLA was very beatable. Jimmy Vaccarro ran the Mirage Sports book. He was the first to put half time lines up on all NCAA tournament games. I booked a room there for 4 nights. I had to watch Princeton UCLA alone in my room. The game had too much importance to me. Financially, it became more significant at half time as Mr Vaccarro opened UCLA a bit too high. I remember telling him to rethink the line. I took +41/2+ 170 on the money line, which means for every thousand you get 41/2 points and win 1700 on Princeton. A fellow Penn grad. who played varsity for Penn called before the last play. “What will they run?” I asked. He called it right. As UCLA missed their final heave, i sprinted out of the room. Coach Carrill still had a game left. Princeton won. The Ivy league stood proud but perhaps not as much as me. I walked aimlessly, but with unmatched joy. Happiness is fleeting for me. Princeton’s win had triggered more of it than I could ever remember. I still smile today as I write the end.

    • BostonRed88, I guess it’s a small world. I, too, was a Bostonian in 1996 and watched the Princeton-UCLA game alone in my room at The Mirage Hotel, where I had, as I did every year back then, booked Wednesday through Saturday night the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. I got together every year with the same group of about a dozen friends, who were gathered in the raucous sports book downstairs. But once the late game started, I retreated upstairs so that I could hear the audio.

      As the game wound toward Lewullis’ final lay-up, I too had a friend call me (on the hotel handset — no cell phone) to share the moment. Afterwards, I ran down to the Mirage sports book and was mobbed by my friends. At that moment, as you did, the emotion finally crested and I too burst into uncontrolled tears. I stumbled about awkwardly in a daze with my buddies cheering around me, looking like Miss America receiving her new crown from last year’s winner.

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