Interview Conducted 10/28/2008
Before the 1988-89 college basketball season, the NCAA considered removing automatic NCAA Tournament bids of teams from small conferences.
These teams were generally non-competitive in the first round against their opponents, who were #1 and #2 seeds.
The #16 seed Princeton Tigers of the non-scholarship Ivy League forever changed the thinking of the NCAA hierarchs.
Led by Ivy League Player of the Year Bob Scrabis, the 1988-89 Princeton Tigers nearly pulled off a monumental upset in the first round of the NCAA Tournament against the #1 team in the nation, the Georgetown Hoyas.
The final regular season game before the NCAA Tournament seeding was the Big East Conference Championship between Georgetown and Syracuse. The Princeton Tigers watched the game on television waiting for the selection show. The Hoyas’ won 88-79 with a pressing defense that overwhelmed Syracuse.
SCRABIS: “When the selection show started, the first game they showed was Georgetown and us. I think we were excited and me being the only senior and captain of the team, I had to sort of keep my composure.”
During practices leading up to the tournament, Head Coach Pete Carril instructed Princeton’s second team to mimic Georgetown’s pressing defense against the starters.
SCRABIS: “They were told just to press us all over the place. We were having all kinds of trouble getting our offense to function against our second team. We knew we had a tough game ahead of us.”
Princeton held their final practice at the Providence Civic Center, home to the tournament game the next day.
SCRABIS: “The Providence Civic Center’s floor had so much spring on it. I remember the night before shooting from way beyond the pro three point line and having unbelievable spring. It just felt like something special was going to happen.”
Carril emphasized to the Tigers that they weren’t just playing in the game to make a good representation of the Ivy League. He told them not to change anything they did on either the offensive or defensive ends just because they were playing Georgetown.
Still the reality of the situation was the Tigers were 23-point underdogs and would have to face the Hoyas’ star freshman center Alonzo Mourning.
Ebullient ESPN analyst Dick Vitale was so sure of a Georgetown victory, he famously remarked before the game, “If Princeton can beat Georgetown, I am going to hitchhike to Providence which isn’t that far from here. I’m going to be their ball boy on their next game and then I’m going to change into a Princeton cheerleading uniform and lead all the cheers.”
Princeton did not show any fear of Mourning. The Tigers’ first four baskets were all right over him.
SCRABIS: “Just taking it at him was how we had to do it. If he blocks our shot, he blocks our shot. You got to do what got you there.”
Princeton extended their lead to 15-10 with 7:51 to go in the first half.
SCRABIS: “As we got into the first half, we realized we could play with these guys. We were amazed we were able to run our offense with the ease we did. We got a bunch of backdoor layups, we were making our shots, and they weren’t pressing [us] yet.”
Georgetown Head Coach John Thompson called a timeout with Princeton ahead 19-14 at the 4:12 mark to settle his team down.
SCRABIS: “I don’t think they were taking us too seriously, but they realized towards the end of the first half that they were in for a game.”
“I could see in their eyes they were pressing. Mark Tillmon was pressing. Charles Smith was pressing. Jaren Jackson was pressing. You could see there was fear. Once they knew they were in for a game, you could see the infighting and the nervousness.”
Georgetown turned on their full-court press defense to no avail.
SCRABIS: “We were just sitting there waiting for their press. We saw them destroy Syracuse with it. Syracuse turned the ball over so much against it.”
“When they put the press on, nothing changed. We brought the center to the frontcourt and Alonzo Mourning wouldn’t follow him, so we had no problem getting the ball up the court.”
At halftime, Princeton took a 29-21 lead into the locker room.
In the second half, Alonzo Mourning almost single-handedly willed the Hoyas back into the game. He finished the game with 21 points, scoring seven of Georgetown’s final nine points, and hitting crucial free throws. On the defensive end, he blocked seven shots and altered others.
The game remained close the entire second half, with Princeton continuing to get good open shots in the paint.
With 15 seconds to go, Princeton was down 50-49. Carril called timeout when the Tigers crossed halfcourt. He wanted the ball in Scrabis’s hands on the last possession.
Scrabis, who led all Princeton scorers with 15 points, launched a three-pointer from the key with five seconds remaining. The shot was blocked by Mourning.
SCRABIS: “You dream of it as a kid and when you are on your driveway or in the playground, you don’t go inside until you make that shot. Then again, you don’t have 6’11” guys jumping out of the bushes to block the shot. It always goes in at the end.”
In a scrum for the loose ball, Georgetown’s Sam Jefferson stepped on the out of bounds line with one second to go.
Princeton had one final chance on a side-out throw in.
SCRABIS: “We’re all scrambling. There’s about a second left and [Matt] Lapin is waiting to receive the ball. Alonzo Mourning is playing in front of Kit Mueller and there’s nobody behind him. So if Matt Lapin could lob it over Mourning’s head, we would have had a layup to win the game.
“He sees this and he’s trying not to tip off anybody and the ref is just about to give Matt the ball. You hear the Georgetown bench yelling. The ref pulls the ball back, and they yell at him to play behind Kit Mueller.”
“That split-second coaching move by the Georgetown bench saved the game.”
Lapin threw an inbound pass to Mueller who had Mourning posted up on the right elbow of the court. Mueller took a turnaround shot that was blocked by Mourning.
Many Princeton basketball fans and other basketball aficionados insist twenty years later that Kit Mueller was fouled on the final shot.
Scrabis remains diplomatic.
SCRABIS: “There was no way the [referees] would call that. I could understand why they wouldn’t.”
Condensed video of the game between
#16 Seed Princeton against #1 Georgetown
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