Behind every triumph and heartbreak in the NCAA tournament, there’s a story. The Players’ Tribune presents Tales of Madness, a series of first-person accounts from iconic basketball players recalling their most memorable tournament experiences. In this installment, Alonzo Mourning remembers when Princeton almost pulled off one of the most unlikely upsets in tournament history.
Georgetown was picked to win it all that year.
We rolled through the Big East, winning the season outright. Then we won the Big East tournament.
We were cooking with high grease going into the NCAA Tournament.
First Round: Georgetown versus Princeton. It was like David and Goliath.
We could not have been any more different from Princeton. It was 1989, and Georgetown was right in the middle of hip-hop culture — Starter jackets, name-checks in raps songs. People talked about the cultural implications of that game, and sure, sometimes we felt some cultural tension. But you know what’s so funny? People thought Georgetown was a black school. It was just an Ivy League school with a black basketball team.
Before the game, we’re watching film of these guys and I’m thinking, OK, they can pass the ball but they’re small. They don’t have a whole lot of size. They’re not going to beat us with brute strength. If that’s the game, we’re going to dominate.
No one picked Princeton to win that game. Dick Vitale even bet that he’d wear a Princeton cheerleader’s uniform if they won.
I almost would’ve liked to see that.
We run out of the locker room to warm up. We look out and see them down the court, undersized dressed in oversized gear, going through their pre-game drills. You just shake your head and think, OK, we’re gonna destroy them tonight.
It’s almost like they lulled us to sleep.
The buzzer sounds to start the first half. I won the jump, but they scored first. Hook shot.
Second possession, a backdoor cut. They were pulling me up on defense because I was the one protecting the basket. You see, we put a lot of pressure on the ball. We were a team with a lot of skill and speed, and we clogged the passing lanes.
They took advantage of it.
Back door cut. And again.
They back-doored the shit out of us.
Pete Carrill, their coach, knew what he was doing. They were so disciplined. He made sure they got good shots on every possession. Back door. Run down the clock. High-percentage shot. They capitalized on everything. And they were patient. They didn’t rush. They waited until the right moment when we fell asleep on defense — and we fell asleep on every play. When we did?
They kicked our ass in the first half. We went into the locker room down by eight. Coach Thompson’s message was succinct: We got another half, we gotta get it done.
Here we are, down by 10 to immediately start the second half. The crowd started to turn. You could hear everyone cheering for Princeton. They weren’t cheering for us. Everyone wanted to see them beat Georgetown. It was almost like we were playing on their home court.
They weren’t afraid of us. There was no fear at all.
Still, I knew there was time left. The college game is a game of spurts and runs. I knew we had a run in us. I didn’t know when it was gonna come, but I knew it would eventually.
After a while, we adjusted.
It was back and forth down to the last 15 seconds. Princeton was down by one with possession under their basket. Bob Scrabis put up a shot, and I blocked it. It bounced out of bounds on the rebound. One second left. They called a timeout.
There could only be one play they were drawing up, and I knew what it was: They were going to their big, Kit Mueller.
I knew he had to take it, and I couldn’t give him a good look.
Matt Lapin inbounded the ball to Mueller. He had to shoot over my left. I put my hand up.
I got a piece of the ball.
Time runs out. Georgetown wins.
People were outraged, saying, “Oh, it was a foul! It was a foul!”
To this day, I still get Princeton alumni saying to me, “Hey, you fouled Mueller!” Hilarious. That wasn’t a foul. Far from it. Watch the replay. I had seven blocks total, and that was one of them.
In the end, brute strength prevailed. I didn’t realize how much grit they had until we played against them. I was impressed by that. They should’ve won. They played better than we did for the majority. But we had better athletes, and I had a hell of a game: I had 21 points and all those blocks. It took a game that like from me in order for us to win.
We would go on to lose to Duke in the East Regional final. We didn’t shoot well in that game. Then Duke lost to Seton Hall. We beat Seton Hall three times that year. We should’ve been in the Final Four. I regret it.
One thing I don’t regret, though, was all that time under the tutelage of Coach Thompson.
There was one practice I remember vividly. We were all shooting around and the whistle blows. Big John calls us over and tells us to go sit on the bleachers. He says, “Can one of y’all tell me what happened in the world today?” We’re all looking around at each other, sitting quietly. He says, “None of y’all can tell me what happened in the world today?” Finally, one of the managers says, “They tore down the Berlin wall.”
Coach gets upset at all of us players. He’s like, “I can’t believe you go to this prestigious university and you don’t know what went on in the world today. Look at a newspaper! Don’t take this education for granted.”
That’s what kind of coach he was. He wasn’t just about basketball and X’s and O’s, he was about us taking advantage of this amazing education right in front of us. He was about the student part of student-athletes. His teachings helped me be a better man more than they helped me be a better basketball player. He was like a father figure to me.
I’ve passed that on to my son, who’s a freshman and playing basketball at Georgetown now. He’s a whole lot smarter than I was at 18. He gets it. Let me tell you, when I saw him in his Georgetown uniform for the first time, I was just … emotional. There’s certainly pressure for him, playing there. But I told him, “Don’t let that bother you because wherever you go, Son, there’s going to be pressure. You’re carrying that name on the back of your jersey. People are going to place expectations on you. I’m going to be proud of you regardless of what happens in your basketball career.”
I don’t know if he’ll get that championship that eluded me. But no matter what, I’ll be proud.
For more Tales of Madness, visit our Tales of Madness page.