Seven months and 39 games ago, Michigan State decided it was going to win the NCAA basketball championship.
Last Saturday, Magic Johnson made it a promise.
Magic kept his word and Michigan State reached its season-long goal Monday night by defeating No. 1 ranked and previously undefeated Indiana State, 75-64, in the 41st NCAA championship final at the University of Utah Special Events Center.
In becoming the new kinds of college basketball, the Spartans did what no other team has been able to do this season effectively stop all-American Larry Bird without letting his Sycamore teammates run wild.
"This is a dream come true," said a sentimental Gregory Kelser, the only senior on the MSU team. "It's something I felt we could do all year. We set the goal last September when we were in Brazil. We had set our goals very high, and when he had some trouble in the middle of the season, we put ourselves back together and got back in the race."
It wasn't much of a race down the stretch. Kelser teamed with Johnson, a sophomore and his closest friend, to make a shambles of MSU's tournament foes. After that midseason slump which left them at 11-5, the Spartans won 15 of their last 16 games and devastated five NCAA foes by an average of 20.8 points, the fourth highest margin of victory in NCAA tournament history.
Indiana State's 11-point loss was as close as any tournament team has come to stopping the Spartan express.
It was a sad ending to a near-miracle season for little Indiana State and rookie coach Bill Hodges. The Sycamores came from nowhere, almost, to win 33 straight games and earn the No. 1 ranking in the nation, not to mention the support of a few million fans who gave their hearts to the perennial underdogs.
ISU almost made it to the top in its bid to become the ninth team in NCAA history to win the championship with an undefeated season and the first to win 34 straight games. Instead, ISU will go into the record books as only the second undefeated team to lose the championship game.
Unfortunately, ISU saved its worst game for last, and even good teams can't win championships with bad games. "When you come down to the final night, you have to have a great game to win," said a dejected but proud Hodges, "and this wasn't one for us. We just had a bad shooting night, both from the field and from the free throw line. That was the whole difference."
Hodges, the first rookie coach in 22 years to make it al the way to the championship game, could have been the very first to win it. But he refused to feel sorry for either himself or his players.
"The Lord blessed us with a tremendous year and we have a great bunch of players," he said while absorbing the loss. "These guys never gave up and I don't think they ever will. Anyone disappointed with the success we have had this year has to be a lesser man than I am. This is a team, a unit and a family, and I love every one of them."
The game itself was not a classic in championship terms. MSU forged to an early lead on the fired-up play of Johnson and Kelser. ISU was obviously not as sharp as in earlier games, and with six minutes gone the Spartans had a 16-8 lead. It was that slow start and the inability to capitalize on an MSU letdown in the second half that did the Sycamores in.
Several times ISU appeared to be making a serious comeback effort only to have it foiled by poor shooting. MSU built its first-half lead to 35.23, settled for a 37-28 halftime margin, then burst to a 16-point lead early in the second half. The closest ISU ever got in the last 20 minutes was 52-46 with 10:10 left to play.
Michigan State's offense-killing 23 matchup zone defense can take credit for holding ISU to 23.5 points below its season average and nearly 10 percent below its normal shooting average. To have a chance against the MSU zone, the Sycamores had to hit well from outside, and they didn't. Bird had an MSU defender at his back and his front throughout the game, denying him both the ball and easy shot.
In a frustrating performance for the consensus Player of the Year, Bird hit only 7 of 21 shots from the field and tallied 19 points 10 below his average. As a measure of MSU's defensive effectiveness, Bird only managed two assists. One of ISU's big weapons all year has been Bird's passing skill to teammates for the easy underneath shot, but MSU played so tight inside Bird had nowhere to pass but out.
Steve Reed and Carl Nicks, ISU's two outside threats, could never pick up the slack for Bird and kept bouncing shots off the front of the rim most of the game.
MSU got a game-saver from an unexpected source, however, during ISU's comeback effort in the second half. Guard Terry Donnelly, who averaged only 6.4 points a game for the season, popped in 13 of his 15 points on 5 for 5 shooting from the field and 5 of 6 shooting from the line. Most of his field goals game on shots of 20-plus feet from the wings.
"ISU was overshifting on Earvin and the others and leaving me open," explained Donnelly. "Coach said before the game that might happen and if it did I should take the 15-, 20-foot shot. I didn't really expect to do that well because I normally don't shoot that much. But once I hit a couple I kind of got excited and decided to shoot some more."
As for MSU's successful defense on Bird, coach Jud Heathcote, a former University of Montana mentor in just his third year at East Lansing, explained it this way:
"Bird has a reputation of playing better against a zone defense, but we gambled by putting a man and a half on him and it worked. We decided to give them the outside shot, keep Nicks from penetrating and dumping off and keep Bird from cutting us to pieces with his passing inside."
The man and a half concept meant anytime Bird faced the basket with the ball he had one man on him; anytime he put the ball on the floor he had two men on him, with a guard coming over to assist the wing man.
"We had a game plan and it worked," said Heathcote. "Some nights it might not."
Hodges felt if his team had shot the way it normally does, it would have been in the game at the end."
"We got the shots we have been getting all year, but we just didn't hit the percentage we usually get," he said. "I figure if we had hit our foul shots, especially during that comeback the second half, we would have been in the ball game. We were down by 11 points once this year and came back to win, and we would never have been down by 16 in this game if we had hit our free throws."
ISU actually outscored MSU from the field, 27 goals to 26, but hit only 10 of 22 free throws. In the second half ISU hit only 4 of 11 from the line, many misses coming when the Sycamores were within six to eight points.
Johnson topped all scorers with 24 points while Kelser added 19 and had nine assists to go with eight rebounds. Bird's 19 points topped ISU and his 13 rebounds were high for the game. Nicks added 17 points for ISU and dependable Bob Heaton came off the bench to add 10 points in a dramatic effort to rejuvenate the Sycamores.
Bird, who returned to his pre-tournament practice of not talking to the press, did agree to answer some questions submitted to him in the locker room by a member of the ISU staff.
"I hate to lose, just like all the other guys on the team," said Bird. "But I guess we did all right, we won 33 games."
"It's been a long season, but I'd like to play Michigan State again. It certainly could be a different story."
Maybe it could, but we'll never know. Both Bird and Kelser are headed for the pros, and Johnson may be, too. There are no replays in championship games, and Michigan State won the only one that counts.