On March 17, 1989, in the opening round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, Princeton University, seeded #16, faced national powerhouse Georgetown University, seeded #1 in the East Region. It was a classic David versus Goliath matchup. Since the tournament was expanded to 64 teams in 1985, a #16 seed has never defeated a #1 seed. There have been some close calls, but none closer than Georgetown’s narrow one point victory over Princeton.
The video below features four segments from the game. At the beginning of the broadcast (0.04), Dick Vitale, noted college basketball commentator and analyst, and John Saunders discuss the game. Vitale promises to don a Princeton cheerleader outfit if Princeton can beat Georgetown. He, like so many others, gave the Tigers little chance against the bigger, faster, and stronger Hoyas. Princeton took the floor as twenty-three point underdogs.
The starting line ups are presented in the second segment (0:28), and viewers can watch the first six minutes of the game (from 3:58), and see the final three minutes of play (from 12:03), including Vitale’s reaction to Princeton’s performance and near victory.
Georgetown, under head coach John Thompson, entered the tournament ranked #2 in the country and had recently won the Big East Conference title. They had a 26-4 pre-tournament record, and the team was loaded with talent, including freshman star and future NBA player Alonzo Mourning and senior captain Charles Smith, the Big East Player of the Year. Many predicted them to win the tournament.
Princeton, led by their famously colorful coach Pete Carril (left), was 19-8 overall, and as Ivy League champions had earned an automatic bid to the national tournament. They were a young team, with only one junior, Matt Lapin, and one senior, Ivy League Player of the Year and captain Bob Scrabis, on the roster. But, this was also a Princeton team that led the nation in defense, allowing only 53 points per game.
How could Princeton stay with Georgetown and keep the game close? The “Princeton Offense,” the hallmark of Carril’s coaching style, slowed down the Hoyas and forced an entirely different style of play. The “Princeton Offense” spread the floor, utilizing a three guard set, and made the contest a half court game. Clock management and patience were key.
In those days the shot clock was 45 seconds, and it was quite typical for Princeton to run the clock down for 30 seconds before they even began their offensive set. With constant ball movement and passing, the guards looked for players moving toward the basket, especially by back door cuts, which led to easy lay ups.
This style of play stymied Georgetown throughout the first half, and Princeton’s confidence seemed to grow with each basket. They picked up rebounds, scrambled for loose balls, limited turnovers, and generally frustrated the Hoyas. At half time, Princeton led 29-21, and there was a noticeable buzz of excitement in the arena.
Princeton played solid defense throughout the game, but what changed for them in the second half was their inability to get rebounds. In the first half they out-rebounded Georgetown, but in the second half the Tigers struggled on the boards. At one point, Georgetown had 17 rebounds to Princeton’s one.
The game seesawed for much of the second half, with Princeton keeping it close. With 1:38 remaining and the game tied, the crowd, now solidly behind the Tigers, sensed an upset in the making. With 0:23 seconds to go, Scrabis fouled Mourning, sending him to the line for a crucial one-and-one. The freshman, facing enormous pressure, made the first shot but missed the second. Scrabis pulled down the rebound and with 0:18 seconds, Princeton brought the ball down court, trailing by only one point, 49-50.
Following a time out, Princeton inbounded the ball at mid-court. Scrabis’ shot was blocked by Mourning. After a scramble for the ball and with one second remaining, Princeton, still down by only one point, inbounded the ball from the sideline. Kit Mueller’s shot at the buzzer missed, and Georgetown escaped by the narrowest of margins, 50-49.
Back in the studio Vitale appeared in a Princeton sweatshirt and all the talk in the basketball world for a while was of the near upset. Despite the loss, the result of the game was a proud moment for Princeton basketball, as it demonstrated that it could play with the best of them.
The VHS tape capturing this footage is part of the University Archives’ Historical Audiovisual Collection (item no. 1497). Images are taken from this tape. Additional commentary may be found in the Daily Princeton of March 20, 1989.