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Curry Kirkpatrick
April 06, 1987
Keith Smart's last-gasp basket propelled Indiana to a 74-73 victory over Syracuse in a brilliantly played NCAA title game
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April 06, 1987

Smart And Super

Keith Smart's last-gasp basket propelled Indiana to a 74-73 victory over Syracuse in a brilliantly played NCAA title game

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You've read the book. You've seen the movie. Now here was the play: Hoosiers On The Blink. Only they didn't.

Indiana won the NCAA championship game 74-73 on Monday night because its workaday, in-the-flesh Hoosiers refused to bat an eye. Not when the unsung boys from Syracuse were running up an eight-point lead in the second half and, even more impressive, not when the Orangemen were shaking off a typical Knight-time rally to take command again in the final minutes. Not when the man from Syracuse, Derrick Coleman, a freshman at that, was tearing them apart off the backboards. Not when the Orange had totally outplayed Indiana over the expanse and excess of the Louisiana Superdome and finally shut off Steve Alford's three-point bombs. Indeed, Syracuse held Alford scoreless in the last four minutes and tried to protect its 73-72 lead by boxing him out of any options he had to climax his storybook career. But this simply allowed another Hoosier to steal the closing scene of yet another breathtaking national title game.

Blink? The Hoosiers merely got the ball to a former McDonald's fry cook, motorcycle accident victim, junior college no-name who last appeared in the Dome as a Boy Scout ushering pro football fans to their seats "way up there by the windows." And when Keith Smart had finished scoring 12 of his team's last 15 points, including the winning 16-foot jump shot from the left side with five seconds remaining under massive pressure, most of Indiana didn't even care that the film Hoosiers' Dennis Hopper hadn't won the Oscar for best supporting actor just so long as this real-life Hoosier named Smart had.

Ironic, isn't it, that Indiana coach Bob Knight's third NCAA championship arrived in the year of his hated three-point basket? Alford struck for all seven of his three-pointers in the first 29 minutes—the final one coming in the midst of a 10-consecutive-points Hoosier comeback that wiped out the biggest lead of the game and put Indiana ahead 54-52 with 9:48 left. Two straight Alford threes at the end of the first half had given the Hoosiers a 34-33 lead at intermission. Later, Alford's diligence from half-moon-ville kept the wolf at the Syracuse door, and now the favorites were obviously out of danger.

However, the one sure thing about this college season has been that nothing is sure. Syracuse, which in big games has long been synonymous with ex-cuse, had won several testing contests ( Florida, North Carolina) to get this far in the tournament, and Orange coach Jim Boeheim's changing defenses would continue to confound the master—"keep us guessing," said Knight. "They never let us get the ball where we wanted it."

In his own personal time of change—encompassing divorce, repudiation of the best-selling A Season On The Brink, grudging occasional use of the zone defense and revitalization of the red sweater industry—the most bizarre Knight move of all was injecting the dreaded juco transfer into his disciplined program, in the persons of center Dean Garrett (10 points, 10 rebounds, 3 blocks and a neutralization of the Orange's Rony Seikaly) as well as the 6'1" Smart.

When the General first surveyed his new little grunt at Garden City ( Kans.) J.C., Smart had already served time as a "burger flipper" (Smart's term) back home in Baton Rouge. As a high schooler who grew from 5'3" all the way to 5'9" in two years, he broke his wrist, missed most of his senior season and drew interest only from Division III William Penn College in Iowa. To make matters worse, he suffered a serious motorcycle accident before enrolling in junior college. He was a five-gold-chain-wearing dude with an arrowhead haircut. "You let all your——guys look like this?" Knight asked Jim Carey, the Garden City coach.

"I heard Coach Knight beat his players, but that isn't exactly true," Smart recalled last week.

It figured that a Bayou-bred guide would eventually lead the way in New Orleans. Why, if it weren't for him. Smart's Hoosier teammates wouldn't have had the foggiest notion what to do with those crawfish they were served at a team dinner in their New Orleans hotel. "I couldn't believe they didn't know how to suck 'em up," Smart said.

Moreover, when it came time for Indiana to suck 'em up in the final minutes against Syracuse, Knight desperately needed Indiana's best athlete since Isiah Thomas to overcome the Orange's Sherman Douglas (20 points, 7 assists), who had outquicked the Hoosiers for seven straight Syracuse points and a 61-56 lead with 7:22 left. Smart had been benched for nearly 4� minutes earlier in the half. "I had to gather my thoughts about what was going on. It was a big game," he said.

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