I watched the game in the Princeton Sports Bar (in my day, it was a restaurant called The Annex where my advisor took me and drank Manhattans) with TigerHawk, and we were among the oldest people in the joint, at least chronologically, but certainly not in spirit. It was, of course, an exciting game, underdog Princeton, we of the back-door play, much-better-than-historical defensive rebounding, and with some size, against one of the most storied programs in college basketball history, Kentucky, coached by the anti-Carril, master recruiter and lightning rod for criticism (whether justified or not), John Calipari. The story line, for Princeton amongst even the other Ivies, always seems to be the same. They are Rocky to anyone else's Apollo Creed.
And great did the Tigers play, staying with the Wildcats the way Frazier stayed with Ali in each fight, although deep down in this hoops version of the Thrilla in Manila you knew that the hoops version of Ali, bloodied if not bowed, might still have some more magic than your team's version of Smokin' Joe. It came down to the last possession, the hoops' version of a last round, and that's when hoops Ali showed why he and not your slugger was the greatest. Less than 16 seconds to go, and the Wildcats ran an isolation play with their all-world point guard, who, amongst the Wildcats, perhaps had the most to prove this late in the game because he was ineffective for most of the afternoon. If Kentucky was Ali, then Brandon Knight was its potent left jab, and that left jab, usually devastating, had missed for most of the game.
But not this time. With two seconds to go a well-guard night drove hard to the right, the Tigers' forward and Ivy defensive player of the year (in a mismatch) counterpunching, staying with the highly touted Knight most of the way, with Knight perhaps getting a step late in the sequence. And then Knight kissed the ball high off the glass, where it fell into the basket with two seconds to go. Ball game.
Just like that, Kentucky flashed its thoroughbred bona fides, showcasing its ace in crunch time and reminding the Tigers that even if the difference between the Wildcats and the Tigers was half a step on this fun-filled afternoon, that's the difference between perennial powerhouses and perennial mid-major darlings. That half step and a big man with the unlikely name of Josh (most Joshes I know aren't built like barroom brawlers, and this Josh had the body of a noseguard with the feet of a ballet dancer and the hands of a wide receiver) were the differences on this unlikely afternoon.
The crowd at the sports bar oohed and aahed with every Kentucky move and applauded with every Princeton basket or defensive stop, at one time pausing to chant "defense" when the Tigers needed to thwart Kentucky late in the game. They even applauded out of respect to the Tigers after the game had ended.
All in all, a great day for the Tiger coaching staff and players. There might have been some debate about whether Harvard, whom Princeton beat Saturday in a playoff to make it to the NCAA tournament, was the better team or has more talent. But fair Harvard lost by 17 in the first round of the NIT to Oklahoma State, and this Princeton team took Kentucky to the wire. Harvard, with a total of 11 underclassmen, might have its day in the sun next year or the year after. But this season, Princeton was the better team, and they honored their victory with another "game for the ages" against Kentucky. And, while they'll lose Kareem Maddox and Dan Mavraides, they'll return an excellent nucleus that will battle Harvard and everyone else in the Ivies. That seems for certain, although the sneakers of those two will be difficult to fill.
As we were getting ready to leave the establishment, I said to my friend, "Great game, but I'm tired of moral victories." Yes, it's great to remember the '89 game where #16 seed Princeton almost upset #1 Georgetown, and this game will be talked about for a while. Thankfully, though, in the year of Pete Carril's retirement, the Tigers beat defending national champion UCLA in the first round, and several years later beat UNLV. Moral victories are all well and good, but, in the end, the real victories taste better.
Make no mistake, I'm thrilled the way Sydney Johnson has turned around the program, and I'm proud of the effort that Princeton gave today. Because, you see, each and every Princeton team that makes the NCAA tournament is far from a member of the "Happy to be There" club. No sir, they honor the teachings of the old master, Carril, whose motto was "Play to Win." And there's not doubt that the valiant Tigers gave the last full measure this afternoon in doing just that.