This is the first in a series of articles recounting the feats of great Princeton teams from a variety of sports.
Third Eye Blind’s November 1997 hit asked the question, “How’s it Going to Be?” which is asked every fall by college basketball fans nationwide, but particularly by Princeton supporters that year. The ’97-’98 version of the Tigers returned five of its top six scorers from a team that went 24-4, undefeated in Ivy League play, and nearly upset fifth seeded Cal in the NCAA tournament. Led by second year head coach Bill Carmody, Princeton started five upperclassmen who had all played in the team’s legendary upset of UCLA two years earlier. The season clearly had sky-high potential, but would it rank among the program’s best?
Center Steve Goodrich ’98 captained the squad along with point guard and current head coach Mitch Henderson ’98, while forward Gabe Lewullis ’99 led the team in scoring and rebounding. Shooting guard and current assistant coach Brian Earl ’99 was the third leading scorer, and forward Jamie Mastaglio ’98 was the third leading rebounder. That lineup started every game and would play nearly every minute of every close matchup. The team used a Princeton offense that required selflessness and perfect synchronization. They shot more threes than in previous years, but the ball movement and slow pace were still trademarks.
Athletic director Gary Walters said the group played “with the greatest artistry of any team I’ve seen here.” Artistry is indeed a good way to describe the way Henderson nonchalantly threw bounce passes with one hand, or Goodrich floated hook shots over defenders like Lew Alcindor.
The season opened with the Coaches vs. Cancer classic at the Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, N.J. The first opponent was 20th ranked Texas, who jumped out to an early five-point lead with four threes on seven attempts in the first 10 minutes. Princeton rallied after the break with four threes of its own during a 16-6 run. It hung on to win 62-56 as all the starters but Henderson reached double digits. The Tigers won the championship game 38-36 the next night versus NC State, scoring their fewest points in a game all season. Earl led the way with 15 points.
The team won five games over the next month and earned its first AP ranking in seven years ahead of the much anticipated matchup at second ranked North Carolina. The Tar Heels featured future NBA stars Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison and would go on to reach the Final Four. Despite shooting just 4-26 from three and allowing nearly 50 percent shooting, the Tigers led 35-33 with 8:20 left in front of a sellout crowd of 21,500 at the Smith Center. But UNC rattled off eight straight points and avoided a massive upset, 50-42. Henderson, always at home in big games, scored a team high 14 points.
Princeton was afforded no time to wallow in defeat as six days later they squared off against 23rd ranked Wake Forest in the Jimmy V. Classic at the Continental Airlines Arena. Led by Earl’s 18 points and Henderson’s nine assists, the Tigers downed the Demon Deacons 69-64. In typical Princeton fashion, they won the turnover battle 15-8, dished out nearly twice as many assists and were outrebounded 35-23.
Continuing its grueling out of conference schedule, the team returned to action in the ECAC Holiday Tournament at Madison Square Garden. Perhaps nursing a Christmas hangover, the now 18th ranked Tigers escaped with two single-digit victories against unheralded Drexel and Niagara squads.
They would be the last single-digit games against Division I opponents for the next two months. The only team to give Princeton a run for its money was Division III TCNJ, whom the Tigers fended off 59-50 coming off their break for finals. From there, it was smooth sailing through Ivy League play as Lewullis and Goodrich found their stroke. One of the duo led Princeton in scoring in 11 of the 14 league games, often going 1-2 and piling on rebounds and assists. The team won games by scores such as 69-38, 71-39, 76-48, 78-48 and 74-53 while progressing to number eight in the AP poll.
The final Ivy League matchup was against hated rival Penn at the Palestra. Though the Ivy League title and an NCAA berth were already wrapped up, a loss could have had a serious impact on Princeton’s tournament seed. There was plenty of talk in the national media that the Tigers didn’t deserve their number eight ranking or a high tournament seed since they had not beaten a team that remained ranked throughout the season. The first half went as planned, with Princeton draining nine threes and outshooting the Quakers by more than 20 percent. Penn then went on a tear, making up an 18-point deficit with a 42-point second half, by far the most points Princeton allowed in a half all season. The Tigers survived an open look at the buzzer and won the game in overtime, 78-72. Goodrich’s 33 points saved the day and set a season best for points in a game.
At last it was tournament time. Princeton drew the number five seed in the East region, the highest ever seed for an Ivy League team, but still quite low for the eighth ranked squad in the country. They came in with a school record 26 wins and faced a UNLV team riding a six-game win streak having just won the WAC conference tournament. The Runnin’ Rebels led most of the first half, but the trio of Earl, Henderson and Lewullis ripped off 20 straight points in eight minutes to go into the half up 35-22. They survived a UNLV run that shrunk the margin to five, but Princeton made its free throws down the stretch and took care of the ball to earn a 69-57 victory, setting a program best with its 20th straight victory.
“It was a big win for us and a big win for the program,” James Mastaglio ’98 said in the locker room afterward. “I’m sure there were millions of people who didn’t think we should be ranked eighth in the country and didn’t think we should be a five seed. It was a huge win for us, especially because of the way that we did it. I think we surprised a lot of people who were sitting at home watching tonight.”
The second round matchup was against a powerful Michigan State team that won the Big Ten regular season title and ranked 12th in the country. Princeton came out of the gate slowly, missing its first four shots and falling into a 10-0 hole. But just as they did against UNLV, the Tigers went on a run to tie the game at 15, eight minutes in. The two teams played a back and forth game the rest of the half and went into the locker room with the Spartans ahead 33-31. Things started to unravel for Princeton in the second half in a way they had not all season. The Tigers shot 9-23 in the second half and a pitiful 4-11 from the line, including the front end of four one and ones. Coach Carmody ripped off his blazer in frustration as several Tigers missed key layups down the stretch. The only thing keeping them in the game was Michigan State’s 22 turnovers, which kept the Spartans to just 14 shots in the second half. But they made eight of them and shot 13-17 from the line to stay in front. Despite all this, Princeton managed to tie the game at 54 with two minutes to play.
The final possessions are forever etched in the memories of the players and fans who bore witness to them. Mastaglio managed to free himself right under the basket, but Goodrich did not see him in time and Princeton settled for a three, which missed as the shot clock expired. Up two, the Spartans wasted away the shot clock before their guard Mateen Cleaves, a second team All-American and future national champion, nailed a three to ice the game. A few Spartan free throws and one Princeton bucket brought the game to its final score, 63-56. The scene afterwards was one of heartbreak, as the dream season had come to an end with a game the Princeton players thought they should have won. The much anticipated and nationally hyped Sweet 16 rematch with North Carolina was not to be.
“This season, at some point, I’ll remember how great it was,” Lewullis said. “But right now, I don’t feel too good.”
What truly made things heartbreaking was the realization that this team represented a perfect alignment of the stars, a combination of players so perfectly skilled and complementary that it might not appear again for decades. Walters called this group the program’s best ever, above even the Final Four team he played on in 1965.
The entire starting five earned some sort of All-Ivy honor. Goodrich and Lewullis were named to the first team, while Earl and Henderson were named to the second team and Mastaglio earned honorable mention. Goodrich also picked up Ivy League Player of the Year and was named an honorable mention AP All-American before eventually playing in the NBA with the Chicago Bulls and New Jersey Nets. Earl, Henderson and Mastaglio all briefly played professionally in Europe before getting into coaching.
The team left its mark on the team and NCAA record books. It has the most wins in a season in school history as well as a tie for the fewest losses. Its 20-game win streak is also a school record, as are the 265 made and 681 attempted three-pointers. It ranked among the top few teams in the country in both offensive and defensive efficiency. It was second in scoring margin per hundred possessions at +25.9. It led the nation in scoring defense for the tenth time in a row at 51.6 points per game. It also shot well, as evidenced by the number one rank in points per field goal attempt at 1.194. Of course the players took care of the ball and had great teamwork, leading to a then-NCAA record 1.665 assists per turnover.
But no number can capture the magic that the ’97-’98 team brought to the campus, the league and even the nation. Every time a great Ivy League team comes along, people are fascinated with a group of non-scholarship, less athletic, often nerdy kids going toe to toe against teams laden with NBA-caliber talent. They think it’s a “throwback” and that it’s “refreshing” to see a team that can win with teamwork, strategy and precision. There have been ranked Ivy League schools since and teams that made deeper tournament runs, but none have accomplished the regular season success of this team. It’s in the debate for greatest Ivy League team ever, despite lacking the postseason success of the older teams, mostly due to the more modern professionalized era in which they played.