When Central Michigan finally comes down from the euphoria of its incredible overtime victory, the Chippewas should dedicate the Mid-American Conference championship that they won last week to a talented, eccentric guard on the team they defeated, Bowling Green's 6-foot Jeff Montgomery. At Bowling Green "A Montgomery" is defined as "anything that's too weird to be believed," which is a solid description of Montgomery, the MAC race and its final night.
This season's finish was the tightest in the history of the MAC, where close races are a tradition. In seven of the past 10 years, the title has been decided in the final game. Central Michigan came into last week's finale tied for first place with Bowling Green and Toledo. Each had a conference record of 9-4, and each had squeaked into position to take the championship and earn a spot in the NCAA tournament with a last-second win. The week before, Central's Denny Parks had hit a jumper at the buzzer to defeat Western Michigan 74-72. Earlier Toledo's Larry Cole had done the same to Miami of Ohio. And against Western Michigan last month, Montgomery had shot from 18 feet, the ball hitting the rim and bouncing back to him. With one second remaining, he flipped it up again. This time the ball went in as the radio announcer screamed, "A Double Montgomery!"
That set the stage for the final night, with noncontender Western Michigan playing at Toledo and Central at Bowling Green. The day before the most important game of his life, the Falcons' star guard swears he downed 23 beers—just to get ready. Montgomery, it turns out, is the ultimate Montgomery.
The Central Michigan players were more temperate. They stayed at an out-of-town motel, where they could pinch themselves in peace. The Mount Pleasant school joined the Mid-American Conference only three years ago, and had finished sixth, then fourth in basketball. Now Central was on the verge of winning it all.
But at the start of the game at Bowling Green, the Chippewas looked like dead braves. Montgomery was everywhere: dribbling, scooting through the defense, passing, shooting and scoring. Near the end of the first half, the ball was about to go out of bounds when Montgomery lunged after it. Flipping the ball backward, he smacked it off the head of Central's Dan Roundfield and out of bounds, giving it to the Falcons. It was A Montgomery in reverse. Plays like that and Montgomery's 16 points helped Bowling Green to gain a 39-32 halftime lead.
Between halves fans in the Falcons' Anderson Arena were anxiously awaiting the score from Toledo, only 25 miles up Interstate 75. Central Michigan had lost twice to Toledo earlier in the season, so it could not win the championship merely by beating Bowling Green. Toledo would have to lose. And as for Toledo, it could win only with a combination of a victory over Western Michigan and a loss by the Falcons.
The second half did not begin any more promisingly for Central and Toledo than the first period had ended. On one play, Montgomery tried to pass to a teammate underneath the basket and an alert Chippewa deflected the ball off the backboard and back into Montgomery's hands. He then hit a 10-foot jumper to complete another Montgomery. But despite Montgomery's best Montgomerys, the game remained close, mostly because Bowling Green's other shooters were ice cold. Forward Skip Howard, who in his last two games had totaled 34 points, was on his way to a two-point night, and Roundfield, the nation's second-leading shooter coming into the game with a .627 percentage, would end up with a 7 for 17 night. Meanwhile, Central's 6'3" Guard Jim McElroy and 6'6" Forward Russ Davis had turned red hot. Montgomery scored 12 points in the first 10 minutes of the second half, but McElroy put in 11 to tie the score at 55. Then Davis' 10-foot jumper put the Chippewas ahead 61-59. It was the first time they had been in the lead since the middle of the first half.
Still Montgomery, who finished with 32 points, kept his team in the game. At 3:46 his 15-foot jumper brought the Falcons to within three points at 75-72. With 2:02 left Montgomery narrowed Central's lead to 77-75 with a foul shot. Teammate Steve Cooper then tied the score at 77 with a breakaway layup. But suddenly Montgomery was writhing on the floor. Some who know him thought he was trying for A Montgomery in acting. Actually, he had a cramp in his calf.
Montgomery returned to the lineup and played the first three minutes of the overtime before his legs gave out again, leaving it to McElroy to determine the outcome. He scored all five of the Chippewas' overtime points to give them an 82-80 win.
Toledo had lost to Western Michigan 85-68, but the excitement of the game at Bowling Green briefly made Central forget there was a championship to be had. "I was in the locker room for five minutes before it hit me, and then I yelled, 'We're Mid-American champs,' " said Central Coach Dick Parfitt.
It had been that kind of night—A Montgomery from beginning to end.