TAMPA, Fla. -
Thursday, Dr. Gabe Lewullis' role was as a spectator at the St. Pete Times Forum, 15 years, three days and 900-plus miles from the moment all eyes in the college basketball world were on him, Sydney Johnson, Brian Earl and the rest of the 1996 Tigers.
The similarities were too present to ignore heading into yesterday's NCAA second round game between the 13th-seeded Tigers and fourth-seeded Kentucky. Fifteen years ago, 13th-seeded Princeton knocked off fourth-seeded UCLA, the defending NCAA champion, setting the standard against which all NCAA Tournament upsets are measured.
It was Lewullis' bucket with just seconds to go that gave Princeton its 43 in the 43-41 final.
Both this Princeton team and that one had gutted out an Ivy League playoff win just to make the NCAA Tournament, now faced with the challenge of taking down a national name that, by the seedings, wouldn't be the underdog until the Round of 16 next week.
So, yes, it's safe to say Lewullis, now an orthopedic surgeon in Philadelphia, had an idea of what was going through the mind of the current players as they went through their layup lines before tipoff.
It's been a series of win-or-go-home games for the Tigers of late, but none of them was in an environment like this. Nine days before, Princeton had to rally to defeat Penn at The Palestra, a familiar arena. Just last Saturday, the Tigers went to another known gym, the Lee Amphitheater at Yale, to win the Ivy League playoff over Harvard.
But this, an arena that seats 20,500 for basketball, is not what the Tigers are used to. This is what Kentucky, which calls 23,000-seat Rupp Arena home, is used to. Not Princeton.
The same was true a decade and a half ago for Lewullis, he said, at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, whose primary tenant was an NFL team, the Indianapolis Colts.
"It was amazing in terms of how bright the lights are," Lewullis said. "Then you look and you see these guys that you've seen on TV."
Then, UCLA. Now, Kentucky. Eighteen NCAA titles between them. Then, a UCLA team that, albeit with different personnel, had won the NCAA title a year before. Now, a Kentucky team, also with different personnel, that by 17 points in the Sweet 16 last year pushed aside a Cornell team that Princeton played to within three points on two occasions just weeks before.
What would it take for Princeton to pull the upset?
"Getting through the first timeout is huge for Princeton, getting through the nervousness," Lewullis said. "The first four minutes, everyone's nervous. Even Kentucky players are going to be nervous."
That may have been prophetic, as Kentucky raced out to an 11-2 lead while Princeton made one of its first six shots from the field.
Dan Mavraides, a senior who has been able to help the Tigers rally on multiple occasions over the last couple months to keep the team's Ivy title dreams alive, said as much.
"I don't know what it was for us," Mavraides said of the early struggles. "Maybe another big stage, a little jitters or something, but they took a little early lead."
Both the 1996 and 2011 teams rallied, making a tight game of it the rest of the way.
It was Mavraides that had Princeton's last basket to tie the game for the final time at 57-57, leaving barely more than a full shot clock for Kentucky to try its hand at the other end.
Brandon Knight, Kentucky's leading scorer on the season who hadn't scored all afternoon, had the Wildcats' last bucket, leaving 2.0 seconds on the clock.
What was 43-41 back in 1996 was 59-57 now. This one, however, didn't go Princeton's way, and Knight didn't represent the underdog as Lewullis did.
With another miss by Kentucky or another make by Princeton, however, one Tiger may have been in position to stand alongside Lewullis in an elite group of NCAA Tournament heroes in Princeton's long history in the postseason.
Should the situation present itself some March in the future, though, Lewullis has a word of advice about trying to make history.
"If you start thinking about (making the winning basket), you aren't going to make the shot," Lewullis said. "Don't even think about that."
While no Tiger in 2011 had the moment find him as it found Gabe Lewullis 15 years ago, Princeton's long tradition suggests somewhere, some year, something special will happen again.
by Andrew Borders