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.
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.