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In the end it was North Carolina that Bobby Knight shoved up against the wall in Philadelphia. Let that be the story of Indiana's 1981 NCAA championship, not the tawdry tale of Knight's scrap two nights before. The 63-50 beating the Hoosiers administered to Carolina on Monday night in the Spectrum was not so much a win as a wearing-out. This unrelenting team performance couldn't be upstaged by individual heroics. Not by the wondrous leadership of Isiah Thomas and his game-high 23 points. Not by James Thomas, who was off the bench and on the boards and everywhere that the Tar Heels' star marksman, Al Wood, was sure to go. And certainly not by the Challenge at Cherry Hill, in which Knight roughed up an LSU fan who had called him names in a New Jersey hotel lounge. After Knight shoved him, the fan landed in a wastebasket.
On Monday night the coach made his presence known in more subtle, but equally forceful, ways. With the Hoosiers behind by eight points (16-8) midway through the first half and looking surprisingly vulnerable, he sent in the 6'3" Jim to join the 6'1" Isiah for an all-sophomore, all-Thomas backcourt. On offense. Guard Randy Wittman moved to the wing, where he "took what I could get" in the way of shots. That turned out to be four bombs that shredded the Carolina zone and gave the Hoosiers a 27-26 halftime lead, their first of the game.
The defensive adjustments forged by the entrance of Thomas, J. were even more important. When he moved in to guard Wood, Landon Turner switched over to guard Center Sam Perkins, who had scored seven points in the first 9½ minutes. Now, Knight had the matchups he surely wanted all along.
Indiana "plays five guards—one point and four pulling," another coach had said jokingly earlier in the tournament, although such a definition neglects the contributions of Thomas, J., who has both size and speed. "We just kept pounding away," said the 6'10", 241-pound Turner more accurately.
In the second half this is what the Indiana defense wrought: Thomas, J. and Turner held Wood and Perkins to five baskets and five rebounds between them. Ray Tolbert thwarted the dangerous James Worthy even more, spinning a one-hit shutout. In that final period. Worthy tallied one rebound and no points and fouled out with 5:07 to play and the game long gone. This was in severe contrast to the afternoon in December when the Tar Heels beat Indiana 65-56. In that game Isiah played so poorly Knight benched him.
Things went sour for Carolina immediately following intermission. Thomas, I., who had shot a pitiful 1 for 7 in the first half, stole a pass near midcourt and went in for the crip. Although Perkins got the basket back with an alley-oop drop-in, Indiana's little prophet with the balloon cheeks soon was off and away. Next Isiah fed Turner—31-28. Then Isiah picked off another pass, this one intended for Perkins down low ("The ball was slippery," Isiah modestly said), and raced in to give Indiana a 33-28 lead. "The way they jumped on us there broke our backs," Wood admitted later. Two more Isiah baskets and it was 39-30. Isiah from the circle and Wittman, who finished with 16 points, off the glass made it 45-34 at 12:31. Meanwhile, at the other end of the floor it was obvious that the Tar Heels weren't going to pierce the Hoosier defenses if they played until July.
Knight's objective—"to break down" the other team psychologically and physically—was being realized all too clearly. Even when Wood, who would get 18 points, brought his team back to within seven with eight minutes remaining, all the Hoosiers did was spread out against Carolina's half-court traps and get the ball into Isiah's fast and sure hands.
The 1976 national champion Hoosiers, who were regarded as the terror of the age, beat their five tournament opponents by a total of 66 points. This edition beat its five foes by 113.
This was billed as a Big Top of Final Fours, a veritable Barnum & Bailey production featuring the game's most famous faces, talents and—college basketball being that most overcoached of all sports—brains. Imagine. Dean Smith! Bobby Knight! The Four Corners! General Patton!
The quartet of teams—Virginia and LSU filled out the hand opposite North Carolina and Indiana—had won 111 games all told, had hardly been tested in their regionals and had all peaked to become the four best in actual fact if not in the final poll. Too often the meek inherit the NCAA finals; this year, no. Here were the game's reigning giant, Ralph Sampson; its beaming cherub, Isiah Thomas; the Tar Heels' baseline of first-round draft-choice celebrities; and the Tigers' den of versatile, gold-jewelry-adorned athletes who had an edge, said one coach, "only if Sammy Davis Jr. shows up to referee."