March 13, 2011
But not long after Doug Davis's 18-footer fell through the net and gave the Tigers their first NCAA tournament berth since 2004, ESPN cameras flashed over to the Princeton bench, where another memorable scene was caught — Fourth-year coach Sydney Johnson shedding tears of joy while embracing his assistants.
It's not the reaction many expect to see publicly, but Johnson just couldn't help it.
"It's just been such a major challenge for us to just get good," he said a couple of hours later. "So many people have tried to — in a good, competitive way — the schools in our league have worked their hardest to keep us down. At 6-23 (in 2007-08), people weren't making it easy on us the next year and the next year. I think that got the best of me because we worked so hard to beat those people."
Just four days after coming from behind to beat Penn in its regular season finale to force a one-game playoff for the Ivy League's automatic bid, Princeton knocked off Harvard — the conference's most talented group — for the second time in three meetings.
The Tigers trailed 32-25 at halftime, and secured a 61-60 lead with just under 40 seconds left to play when Ian Hummer dropped in a tough deuce in near the rim. Harvard was patient on the other end, and Brandyn Curry found a seam to knife through down the left side of the lane, hitting a shot with 11 seconds left to put the Crimson at the doorstep of their first NCAA tourney bid since 1946.
Johnson opted not to call a timeout, but did do so after Davis's initial attempt at the game-winner was swatted out of bounds with 2.8 seconds left.
The play they drew up was a meshing of ideas from both Johnson and assistant Brian Earl, ultimately getting Davis the ball in the left corner after popping out from the block, hopefully allowing him to go to work one-on-one.
He took Harvard's Oliver McNally to the right with two dribbles, stopped and pulled him into the air with a strong shot-fake. Davis then dipped underneath and let go of his shot.
"It was exactly what we drew up," Johnson said. "The guys knew exactly what we wanted to do, the guys were locked in. Whether we made that shot or not, I was going to be able to live with the results because we worked at it and executed it.
"Sometimes you have to appreciate what the basketball gods have in store for you. They were banking on a Princeton win."
Johnson has already made such a massive difference in four seasons at the helm back at his alma mater, getting Princeton back to the top of the Ivy and now again to the NCAA tournament.
He's not done teaching for the season, though, as Johnson knows better than anyone that no matter where Princeton gets seeded on Sunday evening, there are games that can still be won.
Fifteen years ago, as a junior playing for legendary Tigers coach Pete Carril, Johnson helped lead the 13th-seeded Tigers to a stunning 43-41 upset of defending national champion UCLA in the first round of the 1996 NCAA tourney.
He said he's never spoken to his team specifically about that game, but has often shared his general experiences as a player with them.
Now that becomes even more valuable in helping prepare a group of guys who have never been on college basketball's biggest stage for its first crack at it.
"What you do is you don't reset (the team's focus) too much — You have to allow these emotions to run their course," he said. "You can't shut it down too quickly. Monday is when we start to say 'OK, we've got two nights of feeling good, now let's zero in.'"