When Lewullis gets in a game, he inevitably drifts out to the right wing of the 3-point line while on offense. Once there, he pauses for a moment in hopes of catching his defender off guard. Then, he plants his left-leg and cuts sharply to the basket. If another Princeton graduate has the ball at the top of the key, he whisks a bounce pass to the cutting Lewullis, who will likely catch the ball in stride and lay it in the hoop for two easy points. Then Lewullis prepares for what always comes next. “When they see Princeton guys playing together,” he says, “if we beat them backdoor, you know you’re going to hear about it.”
For this, Lewullis has only himself to blame.
Fifteen years ago on a mid-March night in the basketball Mecca of Indianapolis, the freshman who had started just two games since December made the backdoor cut seen around the country. His subsequent layup clinched Princeton’s 43-41 win over the defending national champion UCLA Bruins in the first round of the 1996 NCAA Tournament. It was victory No. 525 in the storied career of retiring Tiger head coach Pete Carril. For the gray-haired man sometimes called the Yoda of college hoops, it was also his first NCAA Tournament win in 13 years. In the decade leading up to the UCLA game, Carril had developed an unwanted reputation for wearing Cinderella’s slipper for 39 minutes, only to have it fall off on the doorstep of upset immortality.
The game also sparked a vast web of interconnected stories, memories and myths that continues to grow 15 years later. But none of it would have been possible, if not for a little-remembered game played the previous Saturday on the campus of Lehigh University.