When he was just a freshman, he hit a shot that not only epitomized Princeton basketball but became an enduring image of the NCAA Championship. Eleven years later Gabe Lewullis is still asked about the night he helped defeat Goliath.
Around NCAA Tournament time every year Gabe Lewullis' phone starts ringing off the hook. Reporters from all over the country want to talk to him about a play that has come to epitomize March Madness.
"It's kind of funny how everyone just grasps onto that play," says Lewullis, who was a freshman then. "At the time I didn't realize that [after] 11 years I'd still be getting questioned about it. I knew it was an upset and I knew it was a great play, but I think it really hits me now, how big it really was."
On March 14, 1996, Princeton stunned defending national champion and fourth-seeded UCLA, 43-41. With the game tied, Lewullis received a bounce pass from Steve Goodrich and beat the Bruins' Charles O'Bannon on a backdoor cut to score the game-winning layup with 3.9 seconds remaining.
Television announcer Gus Johnson, who called the game for CBS, still remembers that night vividly. "That kid [Lewullis] had so much poise and was so cool in that moment," recalls Johnson. "That moment is what the college basketball tournament is all about. That moment is David versus Goliath. It's the little school beating the big school -- in one game -- for all the marbles."
As for Lewullis, he's just relieved to have made the shot. "If I missed [it] I'd still be asked about it and it would bring back bad memories," he says.
Despite all the good memories, Lewullis ranks the preceding overtime Ivy playoff win over Penn at Lehigh as his best Princeton basketball moment.
In and out of the rotation because of injuries that year, Lewullis was in the starting lineup that game to mix things up after losing the two previous meetings with Penn. He responded with a team-high 15 points while holding Penn star Donald Moxley to zero-for-14 shooting from the field as Princeton won 63-56. "They couldn't stop him," remembered his legendary coach Pete Carril.
"The feeling of going to the dance for the first time, cutting the nets down right in my backyard, was a huge, huge day for me and such a great feeling," said Lewullis.
The win turned out to be bittersweet, as Carril announced his retirement in the locker room.
"It was kind of chaotic," remembers Lewullis. "We get back to the locker room and everyone is high on life. Carril comes in, doesn't say a word, just goes to the chalkboard and writes down: 'I'm retiring.' It was dead silent. We didn't know what to do so we just started clapping for him."
Lewullis would go on to a highly successful playing career at Princeton, amassing 1,277 points, ninth-best all-time, while winning three Ivy League titles (1996-98). He was a first-team All-Ivy selection as both a junior and senior.
He was a key component of the 1997-98 squad that was at one time ranked eighth in the nation, going 26-1 in the regular season with wins against Texas, North Carolina State and Wake Forest. The Tigers' only loss was a narrow 50-42 road defeat to top-ranked North Carolina, a team that featured future NBA All-Stars Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison. The Tigers led that game at halftime.
After brief stints playing professionally in Lithuania and the USBL, where he was coached by former NBA backboard-shatterer Darryl Dawkins, Lewullis worked a year in pharmaceutical sales before going to medical school. Graduating from Drexel University in 2005, he is now in the second year of a five-year residency in sports medicine and orthopedic trauma at Hahnemann University Hospital in Philadelphia.
"It's a very stimulating field," says Lewullis, "helping people regain function with their life and with their extremities is very rewarding and I really enjoy it."
Lewullis credits his days juggling basketball and a rigorous biology major for building the time-management skills so valuable to him today. "You really learn how to manage your time better through that experience. It does carry over into all aspects of life now."
Despite 80 hour work weeks, Lewullis still finds time to play ball three or four times a week with former Ivy Player of the Year Kit Mueller and Tiger teammate Brian Earl, who currently works for Sallie Mae educational loans service. "I'm pretty much paying his salary with my student loans from med school," Lewullis joked. "He reminds me of that all the time."
Lewullis looks back on his Princeton experience not only for the single play he will always be remembered for, but with an appreciation for the bonds built and friendships made.
"The type of people you meet, how talented people are, it goes a long way. The network that you build because of going to Princeton, it's so invaluable," he concluded. "I really could not have foreseen how great it was going to be when I was a senior in high school and picked Princeton."
— Wesley Harris