For a few early minutes, it looked as if Nevada Las Vegas was going to expose the lie.
But the truth of it is, Princeton belongs.
A zone baffled Princeton early, and UNLV's Tyrone Nesby was slashing his way to the basket.
Then a hail of Princeton three-point baskets started a 20-0 run late in the first half, and a killing series of trademark layups buried the Rebels in the second--even though they knew what was coming.
"I think everybody knows about Princeton," said UNLV guard Brian Keefe, a transfer from UC Irvine. "We were prepared and were doing the right things, and they still beat us."
What UCLA learned in a stunning first-round upset in 1996, UNLV learned Thursday--only this time, Vegas was the longshot. The Tigers, whose only loss this season is against No. 1 North Carolina, advanced to a second-round game against Michigan State on Saturday.
"They're a very, very good team," UNLV Coach Bill Bayno said. "We knew that going in.
"Pete Carril was a great coach and it's his system, but they've done things he never did. They're a legitimate top-10 team. People talk about the system, but I recruited Brian Earl at UMass. They can flat-out play."
Earl, a deadeye shooter who hits NBA three-pointers as calmly as 15-footers, scored 21 points, making five of 12 threes.
UNLV came out in a zone that blocked the back door Princeton usually slips through for layups. When the Tigers missed five three-pointers in a row with center Steve Goodrich hardly touching the ball, UNLV looked as if it had found the key.
Then Earl made the first two of six consecutive three-pointers--four by Earl, two by Gabe Lewullis--and Princeton turned a five-point deficit into a 35-20 lead.
"It seemed like they had 20 points with about eight minutes to go, and the next time they scored I think was at the buzzer," Princeton Coach Bill Carmody said.
In the process, Princeton had pulled UNLV out of that zone.
"They had four guys on the perimeter and kept passing it around. They almost lulled us to sleep," said Keefe, whose 15 points were second to Nesby's 19 for UNLV. "Then they hit a couple of threes, and we had to come out of it. They were killing us. And that's what they want, for every team in the country to play them man [to man]. Once they do that, they're tough to beat."
Down by 15 with about 12 minutes left in the game, the Rebels cut into the lead and made it 10 on a nifty move by Keefe.
Princeton missed its next two shots, and a three-pointer by Nesby and a jumper from Donavan Stewart left the lead at five with eight minutes to play.
UNLV was back in the game. Then it all unraveled.
Bayno thought about a zone, but stayed in man.
"We said, 'Keep 'em in front, keep 'em in front,' " Bayno said. "But they move it and move it, and cut and cut. You bite on those cuts, and if you turn your head, they're gone."
Earl scored a back-door layup off a bounce pass from Goodrich.
Lewullis made a cut to the basket, was covered, and wheeled around to make a layup.
Mitch Henderson, drafted by the New York Yankees out of high school, scored a layup off an inbounds play.
James Mastaglio coaxed in another layup, off a pass from Henderson, and the Tigers' next field goal came on yet another layup by Henderson, who was fouled on the play and made the free throw.
Six consecutive layups, and Princeton's lead was 16 points, 69-53.
UNLV (20-13), which made the tournament by winning the Western Athletic Conference tournament and then traveled three time zones east, was gassed.
"At the end of the game, the defense gets real tired," Lewullis said. "That's when you get real easy back-door layups. Giving up layups like that has got to be tough to take."
A frustrated Keefe acknowledged it was, but he gave Princeton credit.
"They're a mentally tough team," he said. "You go on a run against them, and they say, 'We're all right.' They stayed patient, ran their offense, got some layups and that was the ballgame."
Goodrich, Princeton's center, said winning was a relief.
"I think now we can just relax and have fun playing," he said. "With our high seeding, there was a lot of pressure, like our season would be a bust if we didn't do anything in the tournament. Now that we've won, we can just go play."
Who knows what they can do?
North Carolina Coach Bill Guthridge said after a closely contested 50-42 victory over Princeton in December that the Tigers were one of 30 teams capable of winning the national championship.
Now the Tar Heels might have to beat Princeton (27-1) again to reach the Final Four--they'll meet if both teams win again Saturday--and he believes Princeton is even better, calling it one of 10 or 12 teams capable of winning the title.
"Princeton is fun to watch, the way they play, but you don't to play against them," Guthridge said.
Doesn't Bayno know it. But Princeton, NCAA title contender?
"This tournament is so crazy, you never know," Bayno said. "Your initial reaction is no, with their lack of size. They don't have the 6-9 power forward or the 6-7 small forward, but I would say yes.
"It drives coaches crazy trying to find a way to beat them."