INDIANAPOLIS - The telephone call came earlier this week. It was long distance, and one of Sydney Johnson's big brothers was on the line.
Steve Johnson was not calling from Baltimore, where they spent much of their childhood. He was in Belgium, where he plays pro basketball. "One of the things he told me was, 'You're going to beat UCLA like we beat Duke,' " Sydney Johnson, Princeton's point guard and captain, said yesterday. Steve Johnson played on the California team that upset two-time defending champion Duke in the 1993 NCAA tournament, and that game was on Sydney Johnson's mind in the wild, waning moments of Princeton's 43-41 victory over last year's national champion Thursday night at the RCA Dome.
Steve Johnson, now 23, was a reserve center on that Cal team, which lost to Kansas in the Sweet 16 round of the 1993 tournament. Sydney Johnson, 21, is one of the heroes of the 13th-seeded Princeton team that will play fifth- seeded Mississippi State today in the second round of the Southeast Regional for the right to go the Sweet 16 next week in Lexington, Ky.
"I still have the [Cal-Duke] game on tape," said Sydney Johnson, a 6-foot-3, 165-pound junior from Towson Catholic. "It was one of the biggest moments in my family's history. I watched it at home, and I remember being so proud when Steve took the court. Now I have something to share with him."
What Sydney Johnson has to share is a season filled with big shots, including the game-winning three-pointer in Princeton's overtime win against Penn that clinched the first Ivy League championship and NCAA tournament berth in Johnson's three years at the school.
On Thursday, Johnson led Princeton's comeback from a 41-34 deficit against the Bruins. Johnson finished with a team-high 11 points, including five in the 9-0 run that ended the game and UCLA's one-year reign. His three-point shot started the run, and his layup with 2: 57 to go tied the game at 41.
"I really like to take the big shot," said Johnson. "I just have supreme confidence I can make it."
That confidence is felt by his younger teammates.
"He's a natural leader," said freshman forward Gabe Lewullis, who made the game-winner on a backdoor layup with 3.9 seconds to play. "He exudes that on the court. He shows you what to do. He's not a real vocal leader, but I look for his enthusiasm and intensity."
In many ways, Sydney Johnson is the antithesis of his older brother, whose college basketball career ended after a dispute with Cal coach Todd Bozeman the year after the Bears beat Duke. Steve Johnson, then a junior, was seen as a player who never fulfilled his potential because, as his brother put it, "he lacked focus."
Sydney Johnson learned from his brother's mistakes, and that enabled him to survive some difficulties with Princeton coach Pete Carril earlier in his career.
"The hardest part was dealing with the manner Coach used to get his point across," said Johnson, whose scoring average has gone down from 11.4 as a freshman to 8.8 this season, as his point guard responsibilities have increased. "He's an intense guy. He tested me a lot. Sometimes, I was too weak. I thought of giving it up, but I had a lot of help from my family."
Most of it came from his father, Leroy, a college history professor who played under the legendary Branch McCracken at Indiana in the late 1950s and in Europe for a dozen years.
It was his father whose persistent calling got Carril to visit Fork Union, the military prep school the younger Johnson attended after one year at Towson Catholic.
"I wasn't going to Princeton if the coaches weren't interested in me," said Johnson, who played behind Clemson's Merl Code and Virginia's Harold Deane at Fork Union. "When I got down to Fork Union, I was kind of shocked that I could play with those guys."
Now, he and the Tigers are doing the shocking.
Sydney Johnson hopes they have one surprise left.
"My brother got a big ring for making the Sweet 16," he said. "I want one of those, too."
Pub Date: 3/16/96