Ah, late December in New York. Yuletide decorations brightening a stroll along Fifth Avenue. Throngs of happy visitors packing Radio City Music Hall for the Christmas show. The excitement of the Holiday Festival at Madison Square Garden, the granddaddy of Christmas basketball tournaments. It's hard to imagine a scene better suited for revelry, and 3,000 fans from Duke were there last week to enjoy it, to wander through Tiffany's and Saks, to take in the shows and, almost incidentally, to see the Blue Devils, 6-0 for the season and ranked No. 1, rip up what looked like a pushover field.
Well, the folks from Durham, N.C. saw the shows and shops and bought their souvenirs, but they also got something none of them figured on—a huge pre-New Year's hangover. Their beloved Dukies not only lost but did so ignominiously, twice blowing immense second-half leads to finish last and leaving Ohio State and Rutgers to fight it out through three overtimes in the championship game.
In the finale, it looked for a long while as though neither team would ever win the title. Rutgers had a chance in regulation time, but Tom Brown was called for an offensive foul as he drove in for what would have been the clinching fast-break layup. Ohio State led by four with 18 seconds remaining in the first overtime, but the Scarlet Knights' Daryl Strickland made two free throws and Abdel Anderson stole the ensuing inbounds pass and scored a cripple to tie the score again. In the second overtime period, Ohio State had an opportunity to break a 90-90 deadlock with 33 seconds to go, but Mike Cline slipped on a wet spot while driving down the lane and was called for traveling.
That left it for Jammin' James Bailey of Rutgers to win the Festival with his specialty—a vicious, backboard-convulsing slam—in the 55th minute of play. It gave the Scarlet Knights a 97-96 victory and the championship trophy.
January 8, 1979
All of which was a fitting conclusion to a tournament that turned out just the way no one expected it would. All four coaches, including Duke's Bill Foster, had picked the Blue Devils to win. Considering the pre-tournament records—St. John's was 6-3, with losses to the likes of Columbia; Ohio State was 4-3, including defeats by Toledo and Butler; Rutgers was 4-3, having fallen to Lafayette and St. Peter's—and the pairings that guaranteed one of the two local schools, Rutgers or St. John's, a spot in the finale, the logical order of finish would have been Duke, St. John's, Ohio State and Rutgers. Which is exactly the reverse of what happened, and which explains why Christmas tournaments can be so much fun.
Unless, of course, you're the poor sucker who loses twice as Duke did, somehow managing to squander a 17-point advantage against Ohio State and a 19-point bulge in Saturday night's 69-66 loss to St. John's.
"It's a toss-up what I should do to myself," said the Blue Devils' Kenny Dennard, who scored two points in two nights. "Either I shave my head or jump in the Hudson."
While Dennard was pondering his fate, Kelvin Ransey of Ohio State and Bailey were engaged in a wild shootout in the championship game. Ransey, a 6'1" backcourtman, had been the Blue Devils' undoing. He scored 26 points against them, including a jumper from the vicinity of Times Square that sent Friday night's opening-round game into overtime at 76-76.
"I'll be honest with you," said Ransey after he had salted away the biggest upset of the season with a couple of free throws and an impromptu victory dance on the court. "We were intimidated by Duke at first. After all, weren't they No. 1? But in the second half they didn't look like they believed it themselves."
Bailey also had 26 points in Rutgers' 72-61 semifinal win, despite the fact that St. John's threw up a five-man zone around the foul lane and seldom guarded anybody but him. "When I saw all those guys surrounding me at the beginning of the game I said to myself, 'Here we go again,' " said Bailey, whose supporting cast is decidedly thinner than in his freshman year when the Scarlet Knights won 31 straight games and made it to the Final Four of the NCAAs. Since then, Bailey has gotten better and better, as evidenced by the fact that last year he had a staggering total of 116 dunks—25 more than Louisville's entire team, which calls itself the Doctors of Dunk.
Bailey threw three dunks against Ohio State, the last of which proved to be the game-winner. He also chipped in with a key basket that tied the game at 90-90 and sent it into the third overtime. In all, he scored 31 points, but the best he could do was share the Most Valuable Player award with Ransey, who finished with 38 points.
The Festival was supposed to be a coming-out party for Duke. The Blue Devils had been No. 1 in most people's minds since they finished second in last year's NCAA tournament, but five of their first six games had been played in North Carolina and the sixth in Bowling Green, Ky. The players were anxious to show what they could do in Madison Square Garden. What's more, with the Duke stars, Forward Gene Banks, Guard Jim Spanarkel and Center Mike Gminski, all hailing from the Northeast, Friday's crowd of 18,589 sounded as if it were equal parts Philadelphia, Jersey City and Connecticut.
Ohio State, on the other hand, arrived from Columbus nearly without support. At tip-off time more than 10,000 Buckeye fans were down in Jacksonville, Fla. awaiting the kickoff of the Gator Bowl game featuring Ohio State and Woody Hayes against Clemson. But if the Buckeye basketball players were discouraged by their lack of backing, they kept it a secret from Duke. And now, in beating the Blue Devils, they have exposed several weaknesses that could prevent Duke from even being a contender for the national title.
For one thing, an inability to blow out an opponent when it is already reeling has plagued Duke since last year. The reason may be that the Devils' zone gives the opponents too many good shots. And Duke doesn't play man-to-man very well. This may prevent the team from raising the level of its game when it gets behind or needs to protect a lead.
Of perhaps even greater concern to Foster were the performances of Gminski and Banks. Gminski was up to snuff statistically, getting 48 points and 16 rebounds in the two games, yet when he needed to stop Ohio State's 6'11" sophomore Herb Williams from scoring late in the game, he failed. Gminski allowed Williams to set up as low as he wanted, never fronted him and didn't go very far out of his way to contest Williams' pet 10-foot hook shot.
More disturbing to Foster than Gminski's lack of combativeness was Banks' weekend walkabout. The touted sophomore shot seven for 26 from the field and played much as he had in his first games as a freshman—a little too bodacious on offense, a little too macho on the boards. Against Ohio State he was guilty of two unpardonable sins. Dribbling near midcourt late in the game, Banks turned and gazed nonchalantly at the Duke bench to see if he was doing what he was supposed to be doing. Good-by ball, hello stuff shot. The Buckeyes' Carter Scott came around Banks' blind side for a steal and a basket that cut the Duke lead to 69-65. Then at 75-70 and the Blue Devils' No. 1 ranking still looking fairly safe with only 1:51 on the clock, Banks exploded out of Duke's semistall offense and took a 10-footer that didn't drop. "I don't know what happened to us," said Foster, whose team might have been able to retain its No. 1 ranking—in light of No. 2 Notre Dame's loss Saturday to Kentucky—if it had won the consolation game against St. John's. But again the Blue Devils foundered. With 18:33 to go in the second half, they led 42-23; with 9:27 to play, St. John's had gone ahead, largely because of the shooting and board work of a 6'5" sophomore substitute with two sore knees, Frank Gilroy, whose 20 points and eight rebounds were both career highs. As it had against Ohio State, Duke seemed to lose its enthusiasm for the battle once it got way ahead. And, as it had against Ohio State, the Blue Devils' inability to play man-to-man or pressing defense effectively made it all but impossible for them to regain the lead once they had fallen behind.
For his part, Rutgers Coach Tom Young appeared more relieved than ecstatic. "I thought we had won and lost the championship game three different times down the stretch," he said. "This isn't my biggest win at Rutgers, but maybe we'll have a better feeling now about ourselves than if we'd lost."
And if he has any doubts, all Young has to do is ask somebody from Durham. Anybody.