Great Moments in New Jersey Basketball
March 7, 1970
The NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament had been played since 1939, but not until 1970 was a March Madness game contested in the Garden State. It happened in Princeton’s Jadwin Gymnasium and future Hall of Famer Calvin Murphy made it worth the wait. The diminutive star of the Niagara Purple Eagles tied the University of Pennsylvania in knots at both ends of the court in a 79–69 upset of the 25–1 Quakers. Penn coach Dick Harter, along with future NBA stars Dave Wohl and Corky Calhoun, may have taken the little-known school too lightly. Niagara’s coach, Frank Layden, was just 38 and on his way to big things (including NBA Coach of the Year in 1984). Penn fans suspected they were in for a fight when they led by just one point at halftime. Murphy & Co. outscored the Quakers 45–34 in the final 20 minutes to steal the victory. Murphy, a senior playing in his first career postseason game (Niagara was an independent), riddled the vaunted Penn defense for 35 points and instantly hit the radar of several NBA teams. He’d averaged over 30 points a game for Niagara, but his 5’9” size and the dubious quality of his college opponents had led many scouts to write him off. That all changed after Princeton; in the draft that spring, Murphy was the first pick in the second round (18th overall) and was also the 5th pick of the ABA Pittsburgh Pipers. Murphy’s explosive quickness was God-given, but he owed his remarkable hand-eye coordination to his mom. She forced him to take baton-twirling lessons as a kid. He became national champion as an 8th grader in 1963, and performed for crowds at the 1964 World’s Fair.
January 3, 1989
The 1988–89 Seton Hall Pirates made it all the way to the NCAA championship game, losing by a single point to Michigan in a thrilling final. At the beginning of the season, however, the team was picked to finish in the bottom half of the Big East. The turning point of the season came in a meeting with the unbeaten Georgetown Hoyas in the Meadowlands. Byrne Arena was standing room only for the game—19,761 tickets sold—the largest college crowd in the venue’s history. P.J. Carlesimo’s squad defeated the Hoyas—who were led by Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo and Charles Smith—94–86. The Pirates were led by John Morton (right), Andrew Gaze and Ramon Ramos.
March 23 & 24 1990
The Meadowlands hosted the NCAA Regional Semifinals and finals in 1990, with UConn, Clemson, Duke and UCLA competing for a trip to the Final Four. Ticketholders got their money’s worth with two of the season’s most dramatic buzzer-beating shots. In the UConn–Clemson semifinal, with the Huskies trailing 70–69 and 1 second left, Scott Burrell heaved a 94-foot pass to Tate George, who hit a 16-foot turnaround jumper to win the game. The next night, UConn was on the receiving end of a buzzer beater, when Christian Laettner (left) inbounded to Phil Henderson from the sideline with 2.6 left and Duke trailing 78–77. The Huskies chose not to contest the inbounds pass, but no one picked up Laettner, who got the ball back and hit a double-pump leaner from 14 feet to win the game. George’s shot put the UConn men’s program on the basketball map, while Laettner’s helped to propel the Blue Devils to the national title that year.
April 23, 1993
Shaquille O’Neal’s rookie season was one continuous highlight reel, but the crowning moment came in a late-season game in the Meadowlands. When New Jersey center Dwayne Schintzius slid over for double-team, he left Shaq open on the baseline. O’Neal received the pass, took two quick steps and slammed the ball through the rim. The backboard shattered, the station collapsed and the shot clock hit him in the back of the head.
April 1, 1996
In the one and only NCAA Final held in New Jersey, the Kentucky Wildcats faced the Syracuse Orangemen in the Meadowlands. KU was a heavy favorite, but Syracuse, led by power forward John Wallace, was a gritty and relentless squad that played hard for 40 minutes. The Wildcats had lost a grand total of two games. Their coach, Rick Pitino had christened them the Untouchables. And for most of the game the nickname fit. Tony Delk launched daggers from 3-point territory, while Antoine Walker (left) and Derek Anderson gave the Orangemen all they could handle at both ends of the court. Midway through the second half, Kentucky held a seemingly insurmountable 59–46 lead. Syracuse’s point guard, Lazarus Sims, left the game with a wrist injury, making things even bleaker. But Wallace and Todd Burgan led a furious charge that cut the deficit to a single basket with less than 5 minutes to play. From there, however, Kentucky tightened its defense and Syracuse went cold. The final score was 76–67. The Wildcats had their first title since 1978, winning with their underrated D instead of their awesome O. Delk finished with 24 points and tied a finals record with 7 3-pointers to win the Most Outstanding Player award. Wallace, who fouled out on a questionable charge, was high man with 29 points.
May 5, 2002
The New Jersey Nets’ first trip to the NBA Finals began with a deciding Game 5 against the Indiana Pacers in the Meadowlands. As division champions, the Nets were heavy favorites against the Pacers, who were the #8 seed that spring. But in the closing moments of regulation, Reggie Miller banked in a 39-foot jump shot at the buzzer to force overtime. At the end of OT, it was Miller again, this time rising over a trio of defenders for a game-tying dunk with 3 seconds left. The Nets finally prevailed in the second overtime, as Miller missed all of his 3-point attempts and New Jersey won 120–109. Jason Kidd, who scored 20 in the 4th quarter and overtimes, finished with 31 points in just the third series-deciding game in league history to go two overtimes.