In a season that is all about progress and the beginning of rebuilding the Rutgers men’s basketball program under first year head coach Steve Pikiell, I wanted to have some fun with a Throwback Thursday post on this holiday week. Rutgers made their 21st appearance in the Holiday Festival earlier this month in a win over Fordham at Madison Square Garden. It used to be called the ECAC Holiday Festival and was once considered one of the premier in-season tournaments in the country, back when four teams played for a championship. Nowadays, it’s just one day with two games and no meeting of the winners.
There was a time when many notable schools participated in this prestigious tournament and today we look back at the 1978 ECAC Holiday Festival. I enlisted die-hard Rutgers fan Richard Kent, who attended that set of games at the Garden and is well known among many college basketball circles. You may remember him from my article last year, in which he detailed the “What If’s” of Rutgers basketball here. He is a 1972 graduate of Rutgers College and was President of his class. He also founded the Rutgers Club of Connecticut and has had ties to the basketball program for many years, in addition to working college basketball games in radio and television. Here is his firsthand account of a special moment in Rutgers basketball history, in what was a loaded field for the Holiday Festival that season.
Duke was #1 in the country, Ohio State was very good, as was St. John’s, and Rutgers was unranked. Rutgers got off to a rocky start that season, despite the fact that they had a lot of talent. And as we know in March, they were a Wayne McKoy dunk away over James Bailey from having to play Penn to go to the Final Four. But Rutgers lost to St. John’s in March in that game, with both teams ranked in the top 20.
Going back to December, there were reporters from Sports Illustrated there because Duke was going to be the cover story on the following Monday after they won the Holiday Festival, as they were prohibitive favorites to win it. They had lost in the national championship game nine months before to Kentucky when Jack Givens had 41 points against Duke in the contest. Duke was interestingly coached by Bill Foster still, not Krzyzewski yet, and Foster had been the Rutgers coach previously. So if you had to seed the teams entering the Holiday Festival, it would have been Duke #1, Ohio State #2, St. John’s #3 and Rutgers #5. That’s because Rutgers was an afterthought.
Ohio State had Kelvin Ransey, he was an First Team All-Big Ten guard and was a prolific scorer. They also had Herb Williams, who went on to play for the New York Knicks obviously. Rutgers beat St. John’s and Ohio State upset Duke. In the consolation game, St. John’s beat Duke by 3 points, which knocked them out of #1 and I believe the top 5, which ended the Sports Illustrated writers from putting Duke on the cover on Monday.
Rutgers played Ohio State in front of a nearly sold out Garden, and beat them in triple overtime, in a game which Ransey from Ohio State and Bailey from Rutgers literally traded baskets back and forth the entire game.
I was there and sitting not far away from the Rutgers bench. It was definitely one of the three most exciting Rutgers games I’ve ever seen. The others being the upset of West Virginia at the RAC when they were #6 in the country in 1982 (Rutgers won 74-64). The third being the 70-67 victory over St. John’s in 1976 undefeated season, which was at that time the ECAC tournament and they sent one or two teams to the NCAA tournament. Rutgers was the first seed and got to play an easy 1st round game and St. John’s by losing the week before to them, had to play Indiana who was the best team in the country. So if Rutgers had lost that game, they would have had to play Indiana in the 1st round of the NCAA tournament.
Editors note: Rutgers and Indiana both ended up making the 1976 Final Four, with Rutgers losing to Michigan and Indiana beat the Wolverines to win the national championship.
To recap the 1978 ECAC Holiday Festival, Rutgers beat St. John’s 72-61, while Ohio State beat Duke 90-84 in the first set of games. In the championship game, which the MSG Holiday Festival no longer includes, Rutgers beat Ohio State 97-96 in triple overtime in a thrilling victory. I was able to find the box score courtesy of the Ohio State website:
You can see at the top of the box score that the attendance for the championship of the Holiday Festival was over 16K at the Garden for this classic game. The article from the New York Times on the Holiday Festival can be viewed here. James Bailey scored 31 points in the game, which the program reminded fans of last February in this tweet:
As far as how the rest of the 1978-1979 season played out, Ohio State failed to make the NCAA tournament, instead making the Final Four of the NIT. Duke lost in the second round of the NCAA’s to St. John’s, which was infamously dubbed “Black Sunday” in ACC country, due to the Blue Devils and North Carolina losing on the same day.
It was Rutgers and St. John’s that advanced the farthest in the NCAA’s of all four Holiday Festival participants and they met for the third time that season in the Sweet Sixteen. Although Rutgers won the first two matchups that season, legendary coach Lou Carnesecca and St. John’s prevailed in this game, winning 67-65. Rutgers hasn’t advanced that far into the NCAA tournament ever since and they haven’t made an appearance in March Madness since 1991.
This is a series I will now be doing monthly with Richard, who is a treasure chest filled with great anecdotes and stories from the past several decades regarding Rutgers Basketball history. I hope the December edition either brought back great memories or made you aware of a great moment for the program and the school. Let’s hope coach Pikiell has this team on a road toward many more in the future.