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Woodson, stationed at the point, skillfully used the clock, positioned his teammates and moved the ball to the right people. After Ransey's baseline jumper brought OSU to 72-71 with 25 seconds to go, the right person was again Carter, who placidly converted two more free throws to put the game and the championship out of reach.
"I really worried that I'd never play again," Woodson said at the emotional post-game celebrations on the Assembly Hall court. "I sure didn't think I'd make it this far."
On Feb. 14 Woodson made his astonishing return, a night that proved to be hearts and flowers—but not valentines—for the rest of the Big Ten. It was right there in River City—make that Iowa City—that it happened. Barely a minute into the game. Right side, breaking at an angle off a screen. Woodson jumped and shot. Good. He jumped in the air again, clapped his hands and thought, joyfully, "I've still got the touch."
And he surely did. After being written off for the season because of back surgery; after spending weeks in intensive rehabilitation, including many hours strapped in flotation gear that allowed him to "run" in the deep end of the university's Royer Pool; after missing 15 games, six of which the Hoosiers lost, Woodson was back. Starting at guard in that season-turning game at Iowa, Woodson played 39 minutes, made seven of 18 from the field, added four free throws and got five rebounds as Indiana won 66-55. Starting at forward against Minnesota at home, Woodson scored 24 points and had five assists in a 67-54 victory as his mother, Odessa, sat in the stands and wept. "I've prayed enough," she said. "I prayed until my knees wore out. Mike's a miracle man."
Actually, before his brave comeback Woodson's back ailment had taken the measure of more than the player himself. The pains began in early November after Woodson fell on his back in practice. He kept icing the injured area and was able to open the season and play the first six games. But, says Woodson, "when I'd sit down and cool off, it got stiff. I had trouble bending over."
Dr. Merrill Ritter, an Indianapolis orthopedist, put himself in Knight's doghouse—which annually appears to grow into a veritable pound—by at first diagnosing the injury as back spasms. Dr. John Miller, the Indiana team doctor, was replaced because Knight felt he was slow to grasp the severity of the injury.
A third physician, Dr. Henry Feuer, a neurosurgeon, was consulted after Woodson felt "a tingle" in his left calf before the Dec. 18 game against Toledo. When Feuer prescribed rest, Woodson took to bed at Knight's house for four days during the week before Christmas. That didn't do the trick, and on Dec. 27 he underwent surgery for a herniated disc.
"We were able to make a one-inch incision instead of the normal three or four inches," says Feuer. "We had Mike walking and exercising and running in the water the first week. When we brought him along twice as fast as normal, we realized we were doing something that hadn't been done before."
Normal recovery time is three to six months. Woodson was playing basketball again within six weeks. Knight even had his Lazarus suit up against Illinois on Jan. 31. "I wanted to see someone on the floor in our uniform who could shoot," Knight said, only half-jokingly.
But the master psychologist had not been idle while waiting for Woodson. Using as many as a dozen different lineups, shuttling Carter between forward and guard, "tigering up" his big men, Landon Turner and Tolbert, to play clawing defense, Knight manipulated his troops into striking position. Even when Indiana's charismatic leader, Thomas, cracked open his face in a game and then had it cracked open again during a fight in his dormitory (total damage: 24 stitches and eyes so puffed he resembled a black Carmen Basilio), the Hoosiers kept plugging away.