Duke Basketball Goes Haywire
One of the more admirable Duke basketball wins ever took place in what many might call the most dismal and unlikely circumstances. Bucky Waters had replaced Vic Bubas as the Duke coach in 1970. He recruited some of the top players in the nation, but after their introduction to Duke basketball, bad chemistry became evident and they began defecting to other schools. Hard-boiled Waters did not seem willing or able to stop the bleeding.
The bottom fell out in 1972-73, the year this game took place. Recruiting had now fallen off big-time. Only two members of Bucky’s first recruiting class were still on hand as seniors — Gary Melchionni and Alan Shaw. Duke had Randy Denton, Chris Redding, Kevin Billerman and, of course, Melchionni and Shaw. To top it off, Duke was also facing a one-year probation for recruiting violations involving the great David Thompson.
Melchionni’s Roller Coaster Duke Career
Gary Melchionni had experienced a chaotic Duke career. As a sophomore he battled mono. Then he suffered a sprained ankle and, later a thigh injury. Still, he was talented enough to be starting by the close of the season. As a junior he blew out his ankle in a game against Virginia. Yet he returned and ended up averaging 11.7 points per game. True to form, just before his senior year, Gary injured his Achilles tendon, so he missed the entire preseason practice period. Thus, once the season started, he was trying desperately to get back into shape and play in the games too. Game scheduling was crazy that year too. After an easy home win against William & Mary only 3 of the next 16 games were at home.
The worst thing for the players was the fact that the Duke student base had gradually turned against Coach Bucky Waters. As he kept losing top players and losing games, things were turning ugly on campus. It was a huge downer and distraction to hear the boos and chants in Cameron such as “Bye, bye, Bucky. We’re glad to see you go.” In this climate, most teams would be playing uninspired, apathetic basketball to say the least, just longing for the season to be over.
A Hero Emerges
At the time this game was played against no. 3 ranked Maryland, Duke was 8-9-the Terps were 14-2. Maryland featured All Americans, Len Elmore and Tom Mcmillen, talented seniors, Jim O’Brien and Howard White, and super point guard, John Lucas.
Surprisingly, against the Terrapins Waters was willing to allow his players to use a loose, motion offense instead of the tightly structured pattern offense. During the first half Duke was running with the fast breaking Terps and keeping up. That didn’t bother Coach Driesell-he figured any team that ran against Maryland would lose to his run-and-gun specialists. Melchionni’s shots were falling and he ended up with 14 points at halftime. Duke was holding their own.
Melchionni’s mindset took an about face during the halftime break. He had always tried to be unselfish on the court-perhaps unselfish to a fault. He decided he would try to dominate during the second period. It would just be an experiment.
Maryland kept trying to break away in the second half, but every time they made a small run, Duke would score a basket or hit a few free throws and barely stay within reach. Then late in the game, somehow Duke scratched and clawed their way to a slim lead, 66-60. At that point, Waters decided to go with his mongoose offence. Some said it was a copy of Dean Smith’s four corners, but Waters said he had adapted it from Chuck Noe of Virginia Commonwealth.
The Melchionni Show
The other four Duke players spread the court and Gary Melchionni took on whomever was trying to guard him one-on-one and almost invariably beat him down the lane or hit the most beautiful turn around jumpers you ever saw. Gary had to be one of the smoother players ever at Duke. He had a near-perfect left handed shot and he could launch it from almost anywhere in the halfcourt. Melchionni stated, “I decided that until they stopped me I wasn’t going to stop taking it to the rim.” He scored 11 straight points to push Duke’s lead to 77-62 with two minutes left. The Blue Devils got a bit sloppy at that point but Maryland’s surge was too little, too late. Duke ended up winning, 85-81. Gary Melchionni had scored 39 points.
Flicker of Light in Dark Tunnel
Riding this victory, the Blue Devils won the next three games against tough competition. Their record reached 12-9. Then a Cameron loss to a killer N.C. State team sent the team on a four-game losing spiral. Duke finished 12-14 — its first losing season since 1939. But Duke fans had to be grateful for the glimmer of hope provided by an unlikely win against the third-ranked team in the nation.