Commentary

Princeton's '96 duo take different paths

Tigers' NCAA tourney pair still linked by their win over UCLA

Originally Published: September 24, 2009
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

In vintage Pete Carril lingo, the play was called "center-forward."

"Because the ball goes to the center and then to the forward," Gabe Lewullis explained. "Not very inventive."

But the play with the state-school name armed the Ivy League upstarts with a loaded slingshot.

[+] Enlarge1996 Princeton Celebration
Courtesy of Princeton AthleticsPrinceton's 1996 NCAA tournament first-round win has become a symbol of Tigers basketball.

Steve Goodrich, the center, took the ball at the top of the key, shading just a bit toward the left wing. He took one step out, enough to give him room to peek around Jelani McCoy. Just as he did, Lewullis (the forward) threw a little fake at Charles O'Bannon and drove the baseline.

Goodrich bounced the perfect pass and Lewullis scored the layup, backdooring Princeton into history and defending national champion UCLA out of the tournament.

A 3,000-mile divide separates Lewullis and Goodrich today. Lewullis is the chief resident in orthopedic surgery at Hahnemann University Hospital in Philadelphia. Goodrich is in California, where he works for 1st Century, a bank he actually helped start. (So today that pass goes from banker to doctor. … What were you expecting from two Princeton grads?)

The two will always be linked in the annals of Princeton basketball. The Tigers have tasted sweeter NCAA success since that 1996 game. In 1998, Princeton soared into the top 10, lost one regular-season game (to North Carolina), earned a No. 5 seed in the tournament and beat UNLV in the first round.

But the 1996 first-round game in Indianapolis remains the symbol of Princeton basketball: the classic Cinderella staging the upset against the game's royalty.

By then, Carril had had more near-misses than Florida State placekickers did: 1991 to Villanova (by two); 1990 to Arkansas (by four); and, of course, 1989 to top-seeded Georgetown (by one).

The week before the tourney started, Carril walked into the locker room after the Tigers beat Penn in a one-game playoff to claim the Ivy League's automatic bid and wrote on the blackboard: I'm retiring and I'm very happy.

So the 1996 tourney would be his last shot.

No one figured these Tigers, a crew laden with underclassmen, to be the ones to deliver. Princeton was a double-digit underdog against Jim Harrick's Bruins.

[+] EnlargeSteve Goodrich
Courtesy of the New Jersey Nets Steve Goodrich followed up his Princeton career with stints with the Bulls and the Nets.

"Our practices were all about scout-teaming; we'd run exactly what they run," Goodrich said. "So a week earlier our third-string guys were being the Penn guys. That was believable. Then they're out there and they're Toby Bailey and Jelani McCoy. Not quite the same."

That's how it looked at the start of the game as the Tigers stood in a 7-0 hole, leaving Lewullis to worry only about preserving his dignity. But as the half wore on, the Tigers started to drain 3s, and when they ran center-forward to end the half -- Goodrich to Lewullis as well -- Princeton trailed by one with a very Princeton-esque score, 19-18.

By the time the Tigers huddled up for the final time, with the score tied at 41 and just 21 seconds on the clock, the entire RCA Dome was on its feet. Carril talked with his assistants and then told his players to drain as much clock as they could and then run center-forward again.

Same players, same play, same result.

Lewullis scored with 3.9 seconds left.

"It's changed some now because so many more teams run our stuff, but then, whenever we played big nonconference schools, we knew our offense would work," Goodrich said. "No one really guards against a backcutting offense. A lot of coaches really overpressure, and that's exactly what happened."

Lewullis was just a freshman and fairly unschooled in the Princeton phenomenon. He didn't follow the Tigers growing up and didn't really understand the history of near-misses he had just righted.

All he knew was that someone from CBS grabbed him and he was about to be on national television with Andrea Joyce.

"So I'm celebrating, and they take me away to get interviewed," Lewullis said. "Andrea Joyce is talking to Carril, and I'm just standing there in the background. I was supposed to be next, but she just switched it back to New York and I'm just standing there. Everyone made fun of me, which if you know me, it makes perfect sense for me to be embarrassed in a moment like that."

Both Lewullis and Goodrich believe that win catapulted the Tigers on a run that included two more Ivy League titles and that magical 1998 season.

It didn't, however, catapult either into a lengthy pro career.

Goodrich played briefly for the Bulls and the Nets before bouncing around Europe.

"I went from Spain to Italy to Germany to Turkey to Kiev," Goodrich said. "I decided it was time to come back before I literally ended up in Siberia."

Gabe Lewullis
Courtesy of Gabe LewullisGabe Lewullis, now a doctor, still attends Princeton games when he can.

He moved to Los Angeles and, ironically enough, enrolled at UCLA's business school. Now married -- his wife, Amy, is the daughter of U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa -- with two kids, he said he doesn't get nearly as many evil-eyed stares as you might think from Bruins fans in L.A.

"They don't remember the play," he said. "They remember they lost to Princeton and that it sucked. It's a different sort of memory."

Things are slightly different for Lewullis. Living just a short drive from the Princeton campus, he gets to games when he can. As he's seen, things have come full circle. Sydney Johnson, whose hot shooting in the second half helped make the win against UCLA possible, is now the Tigers' head coach.

Lewullis never played professionally. He still bangs around on the courts in the Rankin-Anderson League in Philadelphia, where in the offseason he might go toe-to-toe with the likes of Thaddeus Young and Hakim Warrick.

"I'm definitely the only doctor out there," Lewullis said, laughing.

Since graduating from Princeton, he's spent most of his time in the hospital. Now in the final year of his five-year residency, he'll head to Boston in August for a fellowship at New England Baptist Hospital.

But first he has a little business to attend to this weekend: He's getting married Saturday.

Lewullis and his soon-to-be bride, Dana, will tie the knot in Philly with pretty much the entire 1996 team there to bear witness as guests or groomsmen.

Presumably they will enter the church through the front door, not the back.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

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