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St. John’s Has A History With Duke

It’s an underrated and great rivalry

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Duke v St John's
NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 03: Tariq Owens #11 of the St. John’s Red Storm goes up for a dunk against the Duke Blue Devils at Madison Square Garden on February 3, 2018 in New York City. St. John’s won 81-77.
Photo by Lance King/Getty Images

After Saturday’s upset at the hands of St. John’s, it took us a while to realize that this was, after all, not the first time the Johnnies did Duke in.

In fact there are at least four major upsets of Duke by St. John’s.

The most recent was in 2000 at the hands of Bootsy Thornton, who scored 22 points and helped make St. John’s the last non-conference team to upset Duke in Cameron.

That’s an amazing streak but what’s even more impressive is that the last non-conference teams to win in Cameron before St. John’s were Illinois in 1995 and Michigan in 1996 (Duke could’ve won that game but when Robert “Tractor” Traylor, who weighed at least 300 lbs., turned into the lane and barreled to the basket, no one was willing to step into his path and so he scored the game winner).

When people refer to the Bootsy game, that was actually in 1999 in the Garden, where Thornton scored 40 points including eight in the last 123 second of the first half.

The 2000 loss was bad but it didn’t derail Duke’s season. What happened in 1979 did.

After the 1978 joy ride to the title game, Duke was seen as the natural #1 team in the country, but it didn’t quite work out that way.

Duke went up to New York to play in the ECAC Holiday Tournament which was held in the Garden. In the first game, Duke was cruising against Ohio State, up by about 20. Then the Blue Devils had a shocking collapse and lost.

The next night, the Blue Devils faced St. John’s and again built a large lead....and again collapsed.

Chemistry issues became apparent and so too did coach Bill Foster’s inability to handle success and pressure.

Foster built Duke’s program brilliantly, finding a vastly underrated Jim Spanarkel out of Jersey City’s Hudson Catholic High, then Mike Gminski, an outstanding student who finished high school a year early and somehow managed to arrive at Duke at 16 and, in the words of a soon-to-be-teammate, “big enough to fill the entire door frame.”

The next year Foster pulled off perhaps Duke’s greatest recruiting coup of all time by persuading Philadelphia’s Gene Banks to choose Duke.

Banks was rated higher than Magic Johnson that year and keep in mind that Duke, at that point, had not recruited a player like that since the turbulent early Bucky Waters era - and those recruits didn’t stick around.

Spanarkel was a find, Gminski wasn’t supposed to be eligible for another year and Kenny Dennard, who Foster would pair with Banks, was unknown as a high school junior and still not well known as a senior.

Toss in NCCU transfer John Harrell, who ran the 1978 team magnificently, and you had one high school legend and four major discoveries.

But Foster struggled with the pressure and expectations, at one point taping the windows in Cameron so that no one could see practice, and the team more or less split into two groups. It finished 22-8 and lost in the NCAA tournament on Black Friday to...

...yes, St. John’s.

After the demoralizing defeat in the Garden, Duke finished the season 22-8 and far below expectations.

Harrell had been supplanted at point guard by Indiana transfer Bob Bender, who had an emergency appendectomy before the NCAA tournament.

Duke and UNC were both in the Eastern Regional and both played in Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh.

UNC lost to Penn - an Ivy - 72-71, while Duke fell to St. John’s again, 80-78.

The losses ended any chance of Duke and UNC playing in the regional Finals for what would have been, we’re quite sure, an epic matchup.

Around here, the day has ever since been called Black Sunday.

At least this year’s loss to St. John’s, ugly though it was, didn’t end the season.

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