It was a glorious moment in Michigan history, but to this day, a sour memory for South Jersey basketball heads.
P.J. Calesimo’s Pirates were a work in progress all season and had finally gelled into a college powerhouse. There were big bodies (Ramon Ramos and Anthony Avent), scoring guard Johnny Morton and forward Daryll Walker. Who can forget the slick-shooting Aussie Andrew Gaze who hoisted up 221 threes? If Facebook and the like were around when he was draining J’s, Gaze would have become an even bigger cult-hero.
South Orange, New Jersey was jumping and caught up in the craze of the Pirates' run. It became a boisterous cheering destination for the Pirates as they marched through the West Region of the NCAA Tournament in 1989 as a No. 3 seed. Those Seton Hall starter caps were real hot for a minute too.
After downing Southwest Missouri State and Evansville in the first two rounds, the Pirates scored a signature victory over Indiana and “General” Bobby Knight.Seton Hall ripped UNLV in the Elite 8, 84-61 and screwed Duke 95-78 in the Final Four, en route to the NCAA finals.
In the 1989 title game, a loaded Michigan squad led by scoring machine Glen Rice, point guard Rumeal Robinson, Loy Vaught, Terry Mills and promising underclassmen Sean Higgins, trailed Seton Hall 79-78 in the final seconds of overtime when referee John Clougherty blew his whistle on the epitome of a phantom foul, putting Robinson on the line.
Robinson, who later admitted “it was kind weak to make that call at that time,” hit a couple of clutch free throws to dagger the Pirates and lift Steve Fisher to national prominence.
Bill Frieder coached Michigan during the regular season and he recruited all of the players and brought in the coaching staff. Freider took the pot of gold, accepting the Arizona State job in early march but he told AD Bo Schembechler that he would stay on to coach the Wolverines in the Tournament, and then bounce to the desert. Bo Schembechler told him to scram and attacked him as being disloyal. Six games later the Wolverines won the national championship.
Clougherty is now 70 years old, and he refereed seven Final Fours after that questionable call, which had lasting ramifications for many of the parties involved.
For Robinson, it was his last glorious moment. The magnificent and confident Michigan floor general is locked up until 2016 in the Federal Correctional Institution in Oakdale, La., for defrauding investors in a series of business scams.
Seton Hall’s 6-foot-8 Ramos suffered brain damage as a result of a car accident, less than a year after facing that championship disappointment.
Seton Hall coach PJ Carlesimo spurned a job offer from Kentucky, stayed at Seton Hall, made a couple of more Big Dance appearances before jetting for the NBA and eventually getting choked out by Latrell Sprewell, but never recaptured that c’hip opportunity that was whistled away in ‘89.
He is, however, still in the game and was interim HC of the Brooklyn Nets from 2012-2013. That’s why he’s probably the only person in Pirates Nation that doesn’t throw shade when Clougherty’s name is mentioned. That and the fact that the student body didn’t show PJ much love during his career, so deep down he’s probably not sweating it.
"John Clougherty is one of the best — if not the best — officials in the country," he said immediately after losing the c’hip. "We couldn't have asked for anyone else we'd rather have make the call when the game is on the line."
It’s a shame that a game between two powerhouse conferences had to be decided by a jumpy whistle, but years later Clougherty wants people like legendary announcer Dick Vitale – a 1962 Seton Hall grad – to get over it.
"It's a 50-50," says Clougherty, in a recent Sports Illustrated article . "Nobody can argue that there isn't contact there. Is it enough contact to put a kid at the line? It's too easy to second-guess. Damn, there is contact, but is there enough contact to put Robinson at the line? I didn't have all that time to think about it. You blow the whistle and do the best you can."
That night Seton Hall’s best wasn’t good enough.