On the final Sunday night of 1985, I drew the assignment to go to Ocean County College and cover the championship game for the second annual WOBM Christmas Classic.
OK, I drew the assignment because I was the only one of the writers who worked on a Sunday, so it didn't take much to figure out who would cover the championship. But I was happy to do it and get away from the office.
Little did I know what was about to take place an hour and a half after the game started.
Now in 1985, I wasn't a basketball writer for the Observer, but since it was a popular sport in the county, I had to keep my eyes and ears open to the things going on at that time. The championship pitted two very, very good teams -- Southern Regional and Toms River North.
Southern was one of the county's iconic hoops teams, coached by the venerable Jim Ruhnke and led by all-everything point guard Jim Bailey and the gritty inside work of forward Ron Henefer and center Mark Olkiewicz.
North had a very nice team. Their leadership was provided by point guard John Truhan, swing man Ricky Garretson and lanky guard Joe Bisogno. But there was no doubt who the star of this Mariners team was.
He was 6-foot-7 center and dominant force Alex Blackwell, a sophomore with a ton of talent and a bright future ahead.
The two teams had met in the championship the year before, but Southern blasted North by 26 points. This time, though, I knew we were going to have a game. Right next to me on press row, I can see Ken Turp and Nick Werkman doing the taped broadcast for Clear Channel 8, which was and will always be one of the best local area cable networks ever. They did right by high school sports in the area and are, I am sure of it, greatly missed since Comcast bought the company out at the end of the 20th century.
The close game at halftime, though, was turned into a one-sided affair when Southern's defense -- a staple in the Ruhnke era -- used a box-in-one on Blackwell, rendering him useless for those eight minutes. Blackwell's teammates weren't much help either and North scored three points in the period.
Southern had a 39-26 lead in the fourth quarter and there was no way in Hades Southern was going to relinquish that lead playing that suffocating defense. The game was in the bag after all, right?
Problem was you could not keep Alex Blackwell down that long and once Garrettson, Truhan and forward Mike Nance started to deliver, the lead began to dissipate. A pair of free throws each by Nance and Blackwell, then a Southern turnover turned into a Bisogno basket. Now it was 39-32. Then after a Southern miss, Nance delivered a three-point play to make it 39-35.
The deluge didn't stop, either. Garretson nailed a jumper to make it 39-37. North got the ball back after a missed Southern free-throw attempt and after two opportunities to tie it, Garretson got a rebound and was fouled. With 2:05 left in the championship, he sank both free throws.
Remember that 13-point lead? North just rode a 13-0 run to tie it.
North fans in that gym were amped up to say the least. The OCC gym was louder than at anytime I ever heard it before or after in my career. And all the while, I'm thinking that this was the game tournament director and WOBM sports director Kevin Williams was looking for to put this tournament on the map. Ten years later in a column in the Observer, Williams even told me that this December 29, 1985 game changed everything for this tournament.
A Steve Lally layup made it a 41-39 lead with less than two minutes and finally stopped the hemorrhaging for Southern. Garretson hit one of two free throws, but Henefer delivered a layup to make it 43-40.
That's when it became one of the greatest basketball games I have ever witnessed. Truhan hit a short jumper to make it 43-42. On the next Rams possession, Henefer connected to make it a three-point game again. Nance scored and it was 45-44 with 24 seconds left in the game when Olkiewicz was fouled by Blackwell, sending him to the free-throw line for a one-and-one opportunity.
To this day, I'm sure Blackwell did not know this, but Olkiewicz was a terrible free-throw shooter. How bad was he? Going into the game, he was shooting 13 percent from the line in the young season. I don't have to try hard and still, I can make at least two out of eight attempts from the charity stripe.
If this was the plan, though, it worked to perfection. Olkiewicz missed on his first attempt and Blackwell came up with his ninth rebound of the game. Truhan brought the ball down for what North was hoping was a final shot. Imagine coming back from a 13-point deficit early in the final quarter -- and in an era, let me remind you of how old I am, when there was no 3-point shot -- to have the opportunity of winning a Christmas tournament.
This was Don Fix and Toms River North's reality. Truhan passed to Blackwell, who had Olkiewicz draped on him. Blackwell began his move to the basket as the clock started ticking down ... 10 seconds, nine, eight, seven, six ...
With five seconds left, Blackwell was fouled by Olkiewicz.
But that was questionable. On the play, Blackwell was in the act of shooting as he finished his move to the basket and got fouled by the Rams' big man. As the whistle blew, the ball kissed off the window and into the basket.
To this day, I still believe the referees got this call wrong, wrong, wrong. This should have been a three-point play opportunity.
Now the North big man was left to have to deliver a one-and-one free-throw shot with five seconds to go. Southern had put the pressure squarely on this 15-year-old manchild. With a large Southern fan base screaming as loud as you can imagine, Blackwell calmly nailed the first free throw to tie it at 45.
Right there and then, Ruhnke called his final timeout to freeze the youngster. He was also drawing up a final play just in case Blackwell would hit the second free throw. At this particular point, I started wondering why Ruhnke called the timeout then instead of after the second free throw, knowing the game was tied already and a one-point deficit with a timeout would at least give his kids a chance to regroup and call a final play instead of making it up in case of a rebound or the made free throw.
Still, both teams went back out on the court. As I watched Blackwell bounce the ball at the free-throw line, I was ready to fill Blackwell's name in under tournament Most Valuable Player honors since this tournament was his coming out party.
Blackwell put his second free throw up. Swish. North 46, Southern 45, five seconds to go.
The five seconds, I thought, were a foregone conclusion. What possibly could Southern do with five seconds and now no timeouts?
That's when I learned that the game wasn't over until the clock read :00.
Olkiewicz took the ball out of bounds, but Truhan and Garretson were already on top of Bailey like flypaper. So the Southern center had no choice but to throw it to the one open guy.
Steve Lally. Lally took the pass, dribbled the ball quickly over the midcourt line and fired a desperation heave at the basket as the buzzer sounded.
Swish! The darned thing found nothing but net!
North fans who were ready to storm the court and party with the Mariners after this amazing comeback from 13 points down were suddenly stopped in their tracks by the least likely of endings from the least likely of players.
To this day almost 25 years later, I can still see that scene moments after that prayer was answered and Southern had come away with the 47-46 victory. I can still see the Southern players jumping on Lally near the OCC logo at midcourt. I can see Ruhnke and assistant coach Dick Manzo jumping wildly, almost as shocked and as excited as the Southern fans were.
And I can still see the upset looks on the faces of the North players who had that championship taken away from them. And I can still hear Nick Werkman going absolutely bonkers on the air after that shot had gone through.
After the game, the affable and humorous Bill Hewitt, North's assistant coach, put it in the only way Bill Hewitt could at that particular moment.
"That's the kind of shot you make to win trips to Hawaii."
In 1995, and 10 years after making that once-in-a-lifetime shot to win one of the greatest basketball games I've ever covered, Lally admitted to me he could never hit that shot anywhere, anytime, not even when it was just himself, a basketball and a basket. Not before that night, not since that night.
Mere moments after I was ready to scribble Alex Blackwell's name in the spot for tournament MVP, I wound up putting Jim Bailey's name there. He wound up with the MVP, but Blackwell went on to the better career.
Blackwell starred at North for two years before transferring to highly touted Oak Hill Academy in Virginia for his senior year. He ended up at Monmouth University where he was a standout in his four years before the Los Angeles Lakers took a look at him and gave him a couple of cups of coffee in the 1992-93 season. To this day, he and Chris Fleming, who had a nice career at Lacey High School and then University of Richmond, are the two best "big men" I have ever covered in the sport.
Southern went on to win the WOBM Classic in Bailey's senior year in 1986 before falling in the finale in 1987 to Joe Spitale-led Brick, who was coached by Don Fix's brother, Dick.
As for the WOBM Tournament, it is still a staple of the Jersey Shore scene 26 years after it started.
But who knows what might have been the fate of the tournament if not for that Sunday night, December 29, 1985.
The night Steve Lally hit a shot that would have won him a trip to Hawaii.
If Hawaii was offered. He had to settle for a tournament championship.
Guess that wasn't a bad consolation prize, really.