My Favorite NCAA Upset: 1996 Princeton over UCLA

March 17, 2008 |

I remember this game like it was yesterday. It was the first of my 11 NCAA Tournaments that I have worked over the past decade. I was the tv stats guy working with Gus Johnson and former Indiana Hoosier Quinn Buckner. UCLA- the defending National Champions- had last names of McCoy, Bailey, O’Bannon, and Dollar (little did we know that everyone on that team was getting a few Dollars).  This is team that went 16-2 in the Pac 10 that year–was going up against a bunch of academic brainiacs from Princeton named Lewellis, Johnson, and Goodrich. Princeton was led by their longtime coach Pete Carril- who was retiring from college coaching after spending 29 yrs coaching at the school without ever giving out an athletic scholarship. To this day- Coach Carril remains the only coach to win 500 games in Division I without ever giving a player a dollar to play for him.

I remember sitting on the court before the game saying to Quinn Buckner- “this is Princeton’s year- they’re gonna beat these dudes. I can feel it in the building.”

“No way” said Buckner. “I’ll bet you a case of stogies” I said. “You’re on little fella” said Buckner.

As the game began: back-door-cut after back-door-cut. UCLA could not stop the brainiacs. Halftime score was 18-17 UCLA. As the 2nd half began- UCLA could not stop the back-door-cut. With about 10 minutes to go- the UCLA crowd entered the building only to see the horror: Princeton 29- UCLA 28. I remember seeing Reggie Miller sitting in section 104 with his head in his hands- with his powder blue UCLA hat on.

As the game came down the stretch- I remember saying to myself “Don’t screw this up”.  I quickly looked up a note that said- “The last time a defending National Champion lost in the 1st round– Indiana in 1977. It was the year after Quinn Buckner led his team to an undefeated season and the 1976 NCAA Title.”

Wth 3 minutes to go- Princeton was down 41-35…..but you could feel the Tigers coming back. Sydney Johnson hit a 3- 41-38 UCLA…..Goodrich hit a 3….tied 41-41. Then- it happened….under a minute to go…..the fans rose to their feet….Princeton with the ball…..12 seconds to go….and there it is….another back-door-cut to Goodrich…43-41 Princeton in the lead.

2 seconds to go- Cameron Dollar passes to Toby Bailey out of bounds- the shot is not even close– and Princeton does the unthinkable. They defeated a team that was on the school payroll. They defeated a school that had the easiest history program in the country (11 out of 12 players were History majors– only Cameron Dollar was not– Geography– which had to have been the 2nd easiest major at UCLA).

The back- door-cut– it’s what made champions out of a bunch of brainiacs.

To me- it’s the greatest upset that I’ve been witness to over the last 11 years.