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On This Date in Sports March 17, 1989: Princeton Scares Georgetown

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Georgetown, the top seed, survives a scare in the first round beating #16 Princeton 50-49 in Providence. The Tigers started strong and led most of the way, building a 29-21 lead at the half. The Hoyas had five future NBA players on their team and were a tournament favorite. Coach Pete Carri kept Georgetown off-balanced with a slowdown 2-2-1 zone. Princeton had their chance to win at the buzzer, but a pair of blocks by Alonzo Mourning saved the game. 

Led by Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo Georgetown again was a powerhouse, winning both the Big East regular season and the Big East Tournament after posting a 26-4 record for coach John Thompson. The NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament was a crossroads in 1989. The tournament had become big business and taken over March. Tournament officials began thinking about making the tournament bigger by closing the door to mid-major teams, including Ivy League teams that were considered cannon fodder for the top-level teams.

Princeton had their ups and downs in 1989, needing a win over Harvard in the final game of the season to win the Ivy League, with a record of 19-8. The Ivy League had recently been uncompetitive in the NCAA Tournament, which had people questioning if they deserved to even get an automatic bid. The Tigers learned the bad news on Selection Sunday, as they were a 16 seed facing big bad Georgetown. Dick Vitale scoffed that if Princeton won, he would walk up to Providence and put on a Princeton Cheerleading outfit. 

Princeton was a 20-point underdog against Georgetown as they met in the first round at Providence, an arena that the Hoyas were used to playing at as it was home to a Big East rival. Knowing that Princeton could not beat Georgetown straight up, Pete Carril, came up with a game plan to slow the game down with a 2-2-1 zone, while using up as much of the shot clock as possible. The Tigers defense frustrated the Hoyas all game, as Princeton raced out to the early lead. A collective gasp was heard as Princeton held a 29-21 lead at the half. 

Princeton continued to control the game at the start of the season half, extending the lead to ten points right away, as the crowd at the Providence Civic Center clearly was on the side of the Ivy Leaguers. Georgetown finally made their run in the middle of the second half, tying the game at 43. From there, the game would go back and forth, as the game was tied five times in the final ten minutes. 

With 23 seconds left, Alonzo Mourning made one-of-two free shots at the free-throw line, giving Georgetown a 50-49 lead. Princeton though, had the ball and could run down the clock and win the game. With seven seconds left off a pick and roll, Bob Scarbis took his shot, but it was deflected by Mourning out of bounds. The Tigers had one more shot with one second left to win the game. Kit Muller took the shot, and again it was blocked by Alonzo Mourning preserving the 50-49 win for the Hoyas, as Princeton and the crowd looked to the referee for a foul call that never came.

The showing of Princeton saved the NCAA Tournament for the mid-majors, as their near-upset convinced the NCAA to keep the little guy in the tournament. Georgetown would go all the way to the Elite Eight, losing to #2 Duke 85-77 in the Eastern Regional Finals.