EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Eleven years ago, America watched a play transform the face of the March underdog. A play that became the beautiful, fitting crescendo to craggily Pete Carril's Princeton coaching career. It was called "center-forward backdoor," the backdoor pass and layup that delivered an improbable NCAA tournament victory over UCLA and glamorized an offensive system that would soon spread across the nation.
John Thompson III, an old Princeton assistant, was on that RCA Dome bench, and "center-forward back" would stay in his playbook, unfolded in the most important moments of his coaching career. And so it was called in the final moments of Friday night's East Regional semifinal, except this time it was Patrick Ewing Jr. making his move on the baseline, faking once, and again, but never fooling the Vanderbilt defense, the way the play had tricked UCLA a decade ago.
"Right out of our bag of tricks," Ewing laughed later.
This is the beauty of blending the precision of the Princeton offense with the athletes of the Big East. Ewing couldn't break free for Jeff Green to make the pass, and so the Big East player of the year had to make a play. Vanderbilt had him smothered, with one and then two defenders clamping down.
Near the basket, he had lost his dribble and bobbled the ball, the seconds ticking (… five … four …) as he spun right and left – lifting his pivot foot for a travel that went uncalled – then letting this shot fly, high and arching over the defenders without ever getting his eyes to the rim.
The Princeton system had been stifled, all hell had broken loose, but there was Green bouncing the winning shot into the basket in a stirring 66-65 victory that thrust the Hoyas into the East Regional final on Sunday against North Carolina.
Georgetown had fought back from a 13-point deficit in the first half, and kept coming and coming against the dogged Commodores. Once Hoyas center Roy Hibbert fouled out with just under four minutes left, it was Green's breathless three-point play on a tip-in and free throw that brought the Hoyas back to 60-60 with 3:38 left.
In the end, Green found a way for these Hoyas to advance within a game of the Final Four. He was the kid who sacrificed so much of his individuality to conform to Georgetown's system, the kid who won the conference player of the year despite never needing to impress people with stats.
"It's bad that a lot of people thought he shouldn't get it because he only averaged 13 points when you've got people averaging over 20 points," Thompson said. "Well, that doesn't make an MVP. Jeff does everything. He's carried us on his back all year."
That's a testament to Thompson's program, to the vanquishing of stereotypes that people wanted to attach to the system before it was unleashed in the big time. "A lot of people said that athletes can't run this, that it's more of a quote un-quote, white man's offense," Ewing said. "We've been proving them wrong every day."