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THEY CAGED THE BIRD
Larry Keith
April 02, 1979
While Earvin Johnson directed a balanced offense, and the defense deterred Larry Bird, Michigan State won the NCAAs
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April 02, 1979

They Caged The Bird

While Earvin Johnson directed a balanced offense, and the defense deterred Larry Bird, Michigan State won the NCAAs

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Last Monday night, in the championship game, Michigan State confirmed a notion that had been gaining credence as the NCAA tournament progressed and State rolled to one easy win after another. The Spartans, despite a 21-6 regular-season record, are a superb team—perhaps even a great one—largely because of their perfect mix of superstars in the spotlight and supernumeraries in the shadows. Together, they accomplished what Earvin Johnson and Gregory Kelser could never have done by themselves—indeed, what no team had been able to do this season. The Spartans caged Larry Bird and ended the 33-game winning streak of Indiana State 75-64 to win their first national basketball title.

For Bird, the word in Salt Lake City was frustration. He missed shots, he committed turnovers and he failed to find the open man. He also needed what Johnson and Kelser had, a supporting cast of bit players who could come up with the critical basket or rebound. Yes, Johnson scored 24 points and Kelser 19 in the final, but a little left-handed guard named Terry Donnelly popped in 15 points and a substitute center named Ron Charles grabbed seven rebounds.

Donnelly played a particularly important role. His first shot, less than five minutes into the game, gave Michigan State a lead it never relinquished, and his last four, early in the second half, blew the margin to 16. After averaging only 6.3 points during Michigan State's first 31 games, he was hardly accustomed to this sort of performance. "I was surprised," he said. "Earvin was throwing the ball to me the same as everyone else."

With that kind of balance and that kind of lead, the Spartans were not about to lose. Indiana State never got closer than six points after Donnelly's burst, and the Sycamores took themselves out of the game when they blew four opportunities to cut the deficit further with the score 61-54.

The Spartans made it clear from the beginning that they were the better team, and they proved it in the most convincing fashion possible—by containing Bird. The player of the year shot seven for 21, scored only 19 points, committed six turnovers and passed for only two assists. Michigan State Coach Jud Heathcote designed a variation of the Spartans' matchup zone that put "a man and a half" on Bird. "He was very, very frustrated," said Spartan Center Jay Vincent. "He kept saying, 'Give me the ball, give me the ball,' but his teammates couldn't get it to him." On those occasions when Bird did get the ball and, in turn, wanted to pass it to someone else, he seldom found anybody open. The Spartans prepared for Bird's usually dazzling passing game the day before by having Johnson work his magic against the other Michigan State regulars in practice. After that, the real Bird was a piece of cake.

At the end, Bird and his teammates were left with a 33-1 record, which was about 10 games better than anyone had predicted for them, and a dream that very nearly came true. When the game was over, Sycamore Forward Alex Gilbert walked to the bench and yelled, "Get your head up. Get your head up. We don't want people to think we aren't winners. We're still No. 1!"

Not really, of course. That accolade belonged to Michigan State, which had 15 wins in its last 16 games. "We'd been a very, very good team the last month," said Kelser. "I felt that if we won we could say we are a great team. Well, we are. We play together, and we use the talent that we have. I haven't realized we're champions yet, but I will, and it will hit me like a brick. I'll explode."

By reaching the championship game, the finalists brought a semblance of sanity to a freaked-out season. The biggest upset in Saturday's two semifinals was that there were no upsets; the third-ranked Spartans swamped Penn 101-67, and the top-ranked Sycamores edged DePaul 76-74. So much for upstarts and old men.

The Quakers had hoped to gain recognition for their Eastern Establishment team, which was making its first appearance in the final four, and for the Ivy League, whose last representative in such distinguished basketball company had been Princeton in 1965. They certainly sounded confident enough, as when star Forward Tony Price declared, "I have no fear of Michigan State. They're just a bunch of dudes who play ball."

But, alas, they play it well, and they know it. "It would be very, very easy for us to get complacent and overconfident," admitted Kelser, "but I don't think we'll do that."

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