Princeton coach Pete Carril (left) was frustrated by the Tigers' loss to Georgetown in the 1989 NCAA tournament. Alonzo Mourning (right photo center) and the Hoyas suffered their own defeat in the Elite 8. (AP)

Princeton coach Pete Carril (left) was frustrated by the Tigers’ one-point loss to Georgetown in the 1989 NCAA tournament. Alonzo Mourning (center at right) and the Hoyas suffered their own defeat in the Elite 8. (AP)

In the 1989 NCAA men’s basketball tournament, Princeton was a 16-seed. Their opponent in the opening round was No. 1 seed Georgetown. The Hoyas’ roster included future NBA stars Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo. The Tigers’ best weapon was a crafty, deliberate offense. To say the Hoyas were favored is an understatement. But the results were much closer than anyone anticipated.

In a feature for Sports Illustrated’s longform website titled “The Game That Saved March Madness,” Alexander Wolff and Sean Gregory document the history of the matchup. Wolff joined Bill Littlefield on Only A Game.

BL: An opening round 1 vs. 16 game doesn’t usually build up expectations among fans. And even the Princeton squad had its doubts after the back-up squad playing the role of Georgetown in practice thumped the Tigers’ starters. But the Georgetown coaches were worried. Why was that?

AW: Well, I think it’s because Princeton’s offense was so different than what Georgetown was used to seeing during the course of the Big East regular season — holding onto the ball for a big part of each possession and then waiting for the defense to be lulled to sleep, making that backdoor cut and a little bounce pass.

And very early in the game, Princeton was able to get to the hoop either with layups or goaltends that put them in the early advantage. I think they were up 8-4 at the first TV timeout.

BL:On the court, Princeton and Georgetown had little in common, but there was a very strong off-court connection. Tell us about the Thompson family’s tie to the Princeton program.

AW: Just the previous year John Thompson III, who is now the head coach at Georgetown, had completed his career at Princeton playing for Pete Carril. And there was so much easy stereotyping going on in the ’80s going on about Georgetown and race — an all-black team. And very few people knew that John Thompson’s own son had gone to Princeton and played for Pete Carril. [Princeton] was a largely white team at the time. And poor John III was sitting in the stands at the Providence [R.I.] Civic Center for this game wearing a blue and white sweater, but feeling much more torn up about it than those colors he was wearing would indicate. He actually says he spent more time walking the concourses than watching the game.

BL:As you were studying the video as part of your research, did you come away with a favorite moment from the game?

AW: Well, there is a moment early in the game when Jerry Doyle, this scrawny guard for Princeton, goes into the lane just past Alonzo Mourning and throws in this kind of right-handed, dipsy-doo flip shot that ordinarily Mourning would block, but I think even Alonzo was so taken aback with the audacity of this guy coming right into the lane. That, I think, was a a little bit of a signal. In fact, Mark Tillmon of Georgetown told us as we worked on the piece that, “‘That’s when you thought, ‘Boy, if they’re making shots like that we could be in for a little bit of a struggle.’”

BL: Briefly walk us through the closing sequences of the game and the controversial play that hurt Princeton’s chances.

There were Princeton players on that team who tell me that to this day that people think they won the game.
– Alexander Wolff
AW: Well, with about 3 or 4 minutes to go, there was — just after a whistle —  a moment where Alonzo sort of used a “forearm shiver” on Kit Mueller, the Princeton center, and sent him reeling. And none of the officials whistled it. In fact, Charles Range, the official who worked the game and didn’t see it, said if he had seen it, he would have called something and to this day regrets not having whistled it. But nothing happened as a result of it.

Alonzo through the final minutes was relentless. But then we’re left with about 15 seconds to go. Princeton calls a high-screen pick for Bob Scrabis, their only senior and their captain, and he rises up to take a shot that looks clean and clear. As Srabis told us, “You take that shot in your driveway, but there aren’t 6’10″ guys jumping out of the hedges in your driveway.” Sure enough, it was Alonzo. The ball’s batted around, it goes out of bounds.

Princeton gets one last chance. And the ball goes in from the sideline to Kit Mueller, the center. No choice, final second, pivots, puts up a shot. It was Alonzo’s wrist and Kit Mueller’s wrist and no whistle. And it’s one of those great things people debate to this day: Was it a foul? Was it not a foul? It’s one the reasons 25 years later we found so many people so eager to talk about this game.

BL: Let’s get back to the title of your article: “The Game That Saved March Madness.” Explain why Princeton’s performance is still relevant to today’s tournament.

AW: Through ’88 and into ’89, early ’89, there were efforts by some of the big conferences trying to ensure that a lot of these little schools that were coalescing into leagues to get automatic bids (and the revenue and exposure that you got from going to the NCAAs) to put a cap on that. So they had floated this plan to have the two stinkiest small conferences, essentially, not get their automatic bid. And this would have excluded perhaps the Ivy League, perhaps the two historically black conferences — the MEAC and the SWAC — from even getting that automatic bid, even going to the dance. And what the Georgetown-Princeton game did was halt in its tracks that discussion. There was simply no way that that politically was going to fly.

BL: In the end Georgetown prevailed by a score of 50-49. The Hoyas would advance to the Elite 8 before being knocked out by Duke. But 25 years later, the Princeton game is one the standout moments from that tournament. Is this a case where the loser gets more credit than the winner?

AW: There were Princeton players on that team who tell me that to this day that people think they won the game. [Laughing] People will come up to them and say, “You beat Georgetown back in 1989.” That was the magic of it.

BL: Alex, thanks very much for speaking with me. 

AW: It’s always a pleasure, Bill. And I will tell you that your colleague Charlie Pierce, in the Boston Herald the next morning, had the line: “There was a loud report of slapping skin.” I think that  was how he described the moment where Alonzo went up to challenge Kip Miller’s shot.

Pete Carril said, “We’ll take it up with God when we get there.” [That's] what he said afterward about the no-call, foul [or] no foul, but Charlie seemed to have a verdict in the Herald the next morning.