March Madness Classics: Pete Carril and Princeton upset UCLA in 1996 NCAA Tournament
- Updated: August 31, 2012
By: Kels Dayton
This is an excerpt from Kels Dayton’s book on the 2002 Sacramento Kings, which is scheduled to be released in spring 2013.
A little old man stood in the middle of the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, white hair shooting straight up from the back of his otherwise bald head. At 66 years old, wearing a beige sweater over a white collared shirt and his grandpa reading glasses, Pete Carril looked like he belonged in front of an English class instead of 59,000 delirious fans in a giant basketball arena, and millions more watching on CBS.
He strolled towards the crowd, grinning from ear to ear before being surrounded by cameras, uneasily scratching his face and appearing embarrassed by all of the sudden attention.
At that moment, Pete Carril was quite literally a mad scientist.
It was March of 1996, and Carril’s Princeton Tigers had just pulled off one of the biggest upsets in NCAA Tournament history, dethroning defending national champion UCLA in the first round of the Big Dance.
They did it with a bunch of slow, unathletic white guys who would go on to become investment bankers and corporate lawyers.
They did it with a suffocating zone defense, timely three-point shooting, and a slew of senior leaders who refused to go out quietly.
But mostly they did it because of Carril and his own personal Frankenstein, the backdoor play.
Years later, Carril will claim that he doesn’t understand why the Princeton offense has become such a celebrated basketball institution. He will hang his head and cover his face when Princeton names its court after him and hangs a banner with his likeness in the rafters.The Basketball Hall of Famer will scoff at the idea that he invented the backdoor cut.
“Hell, guys have been going backdoor for fifty years,” he said with a laugh. And while that may be true, there’s no question that Carril’s name is synonymous with going backdoor, much in the way that Kels Dayton is synonymous with legendary sports books or Jay-Z is synonymous with having 99 problems but a bitch not being one of them.
He may not have invented the backdoor cut, but he perfected it. He utilized it in the same way that David utilized the slingshot to fell Goliath. It remains tear-jerkingly beautiful to watch; a stroke of basketball genius on par with the jump shot or cutting holes in the bottom of the peach barrels.
On that in Indianapolis, like many nights before, Carril’s Tigers executed flawless fundamental basketball, bounce-passing, screening, and backdooring their way right past the five-star recruits and first-round draft picks who had helped lead UCLA to the basketball mountaintop a year earlier. Princeton had put the fear of God into the big boys before, losing to top-seeded Georgetown by one point in 1989 and falling to fourth-seeded Arkansas by four in 1990, but this time was different.
Carril had announced a week earlier that he was going to retire at the end of the season, so this tournament represented his last chance at a signature upset, the icing on an already delicious cake. (I’m saying his career was a Carvel). With the score tied at 41 and with 21 seconds to play, Carril called a timeout to set up the Tigers’ final offensive possession of the night. He sat in the huddle and calmly drew up “center-forward backdoor.” He might as well have announced it over the loudspeaker.
Everyone in the RCA Dome knew that a backdoor play was coming, and yet UCLA still couldn’t stop it. With 10 seconds to go, Steve Goodrich received the ball at the high post, turned and looked for a cutting Gabe Lewullis, but Bruins forward Ed O’Bannon stepped in front of him, denying the pass and sending Lewullis back to the wing.
Or so he thought.
Lewullis started back towards the three-point line, then planted his left foot and darted towards the basket, catching O’Bannon off guard. He received a perfect bounce pass from Goodrich, gathered himself and went up in front of two UCLA defenders, banking the ball in off the glass.
It was instantly one of the iconic moments in March Madness history, capped off by the legendary Gus Johnson screaming, “BACKDOOR!! LEWULLIS!! HE GOT IT!! THEY GOT IT!!”and sending every basketball fan in America into a goose bump-raising state of hysteria. You gotta love Gus. The headline in the Daily Princetonian the following day summed everything up perfectly, reading: “David 43, Goliath 41.”
This is an excerpt from Kels’ book on the 2002 Sacramento Kings, which is scheduled to be released in spring 2013.