Certain American college basketball truths are immutable: Dick Vitale will spew nonsense, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski gets the benefit of all the calls and no No. 16-seeded team will beat a No. 1 seeding in the NCAA tournament.
The closest that belief system came to crashing was in 1989 when the buttoned-down Princeton Tigers took on the free-wheeling Georgetown Hoyas in the first round.
Georgetown was coming down from its “Hoya Paranoia” high from earlier in the decade but still boasted high-scoring guard Charles Smith and a freshman shot-blocking savant named Alonzo Mourning. John Thompson still cut an imposing figure on the sideline, always giving his team an added swagger.
Princeton was fresh off an Ivy League title and Pete Carril was mostly known as a coach’s coach, a mad scientist cooking up schemes with backdoor cuts and precision passing. Carril played the part to perfection, looking like the avuncular professor until a missed call by the referees got him off his seat and screaming like an overserved Norman Mailer.
It is too easy to cut this matchup along racial lines, with Georgetown cast as the black, in-your-face street hustlers and Princeton as the throwback to a whites-only era when players listened to their coach and suppressed individual desires. That issue wouldn’t come to a head until Michigan’s Fab Five brought hip-hop to the college basketball mainstream a few years after this game.
Leaving race in the subconscious, this was just a matchup of diametrically opposed styles. The Hoyas press and run, block shots and run, trap and run. The Tigers milk the 45-second shot clock (45 seconds!) and lull the defense to sleep or to becoming overanxious, leaving the backdoor open.
Did Georgetown take Princeton too lightly? No way, Thompson knew the genius of Carril first-hand – John Thompson III had been a senior guard for the Tigers just a year before.
Regardless, reality must have set in early for the Hoyas. Princeton scored the first basket of the game on a running hook over Mourning by the dewy Kit Mueller of Downer’s Grove, Ill.
The Tigers’ confidence was full-bore after taking a 15-10 lead and Georgetown started pressing, figuratively by forcing up shots and literally by picking Princeton up full court in an attempt to speed up the game.
Nonetheless, Princeton dictated the pace of the game and racked up a 29-21 lead at halftime.
The Tigers remained in control until the last few minutes when the beast awoke inside Mourning. The future NBA all-star scored seven of the Hoyas’ last nine points and rejected shots by Princeton captain Bob Scrabis and Mueller in the final seconds.
The anguish on Carril’s face after the upset bid was foiled showed the real truth about there being “moral victories.”
The legendary coach would have to wait until 1996 to bag a giant, when the Tigers sent defending champions UCLA out the backdoor. That victory shook up college basketball, but wasn’t the earth-shattering temblor that could have happened in 1989.