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1977 And What Could Have Been, Part II

Tate Armstrong’s injury effectively ended what could have been Duke’s comeback season.

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Wake Forest v Duke Photo by Lance King/Getty Images

Following loses to Clemson and North Carolina, Duke needed a conference win to keep that promising start from unraveling.

They would have to do it at Virginia.

And Duke was working on a five-year ACC-road losing streak.

No, that’s not a typo. After upsetting sixth-ranked Virginia and Barry Parkhill in 1972, Duke went on to lose a school-record 27 straight ACC games on the road.

This was the year after Virginia had upset North Carolina in the ACC Tournament title game and their star forward Wally Walker returned from that squad.

Duke hung tough early but trailed 35-31 at intermission.

But the score was the least of Foster’s problems. Only, he didn’t know it at the time.

Armstrong went hard to the floor for a loose ball early in the half. He landed on his right wrist, breaking it.

He later told me the pain was “excruciating.”

But Armstrong was from Texas, his father was an Air Force officer and the adrenaline kicked in.

He wasn’t going anywhere.

He kept the injury hidden. Even at halftime.

It helped that Morrison had been dinged up late in the half and trainer Max Crowder devoted his attentions to Morrison while Armstrong hid in a corner.

Armstrong only had two points at the half. Behind by four points, on the road, in agonizing pain, he came out and had arguably the best half in Duke history.

Armstrong brought Duke back, forcing an overtime. Duke prevailed in the extra period, winning 82-74. Armstrong ended the game with 33 points, hitting 14-of-24 from the field.

Unfortunately, he also ended his college career.

Early reports were that he might make it back before the end of the season. But that was overly optimistic. He never played for Duke again. His 22.7 ppg average would have led the ACC had he met the minimum-game threshold.

No one was going to replace Armstrong. But Kenny Young would have given them some experience at the point.

But he was gone.

Foster turned to sophomore Steve Gray. Gray was a decent athlete; UCLA had recruited him as a safety. But he had played only 10 games as a freshman and not much more as a sophomore.

Gray was not up to the task. Opposing teams smelled blood in the water and pressed Duke constantly. Turnovers mounted.

Two losses stand out, both at Cameron.

The first came against NC State. Down 79-78 in the final seconds, Gray walked the ball up court, looked at Foster for instructions and dribbled the ball off a foot, out of bounds.

Ball game.

Even more surreal was a loss to Maryland. Duke had a three-point lead late when Gray tried to pass out of a double team in the backcourt. The pass hit the Maryland rim and bounced to Maryland’s James “Turkey” Tillman. Tillman scored, drew the foul on Gray and tied the game at the line.

Maryland won in overtime.

Foster went with walk-on Bruce Bell, which placed an even heavier burden on Spanarkel, who became Duke’s primary scorer, ball-handler and perimeter defender.

Duke did pick up a second ACC win over Virginia and non-conference wins over Duquesne and St. Joseph’s.

The St. Joe’s win left Duke 14-8, with a chance at an NIT bid with a strong finish.

But it didn’t happen. The Blue Devils lost their final five games, including an 84-71 home loss to North Carolina and an 82-74 loss to Clemson in the ACC Tournament.

Duke ended the season 14-13, 3-10 after losing Armstrong.

Spanarkel ended up making second-team All-ACC, while Gminski shared ACC Rookie-of-the-Year honors with NC State’s Hawkeye Whitney.

What would have happened with a healthy Armstrong?

A maximum of two teams per conference were allowed to go to the NCAA Tournament in those days and even with Armstrong Duke would have had to pull off a title run in the ACC Tournament, a tough ask for a thin team. But the NIT was a bigger deal then than it is now and it’s not unreasonable to project enough extra wins for Duke to have gone to the NIT.

We all know what happened the following season. Spanarkel and Gminski used their 1977 experiences profitably in 1978 but most of the rest of the rotation was new.

Would 1978 have been the Magic Carpet Ride it became if Duke were coming off an NIT season instead of a last-place-in-the-ACC season?

Darned if I know. But that largely forgotten 1977 team certainly showed that Foster’s rebuilding program was headed in the right direction. And nobody in Duke hoops history ever went out on their shield better than Tate Armstrong.

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