Indiana State beat Arkansas, 73-71, when Bob Heaton's prayer shot was answered today.
Undefeated now in 32 games, winner over a Top 15 team for the first time all season, No 1-ranked Indiana State won the NCAA's Midwest Regional basketball championship and earned a spot in next Saturday's national semifinals at Salt Lake City.
At the end of a game memorable for excellence, Heaton won it with the homeliest shot imaginable. He didn't have a good hold on the ball. It slipped in his hand. He was driving. He jumped poorly. Off-balance by now, he couldn't shoot with his right hand.
So he put it up with the wrong hand and a prayer.
"You just throw it up there and hope it goes in," said the 6-foot-5 junior reserve who earlier this season made a 50-footer at the buzzer to avert a defeat.
Heaton's left-handed hope shot bounced once on the rim. twice, three times, doing a little dance on the iron. Time was dying. Four seconds, three, two.
A half-hour later, explaining his heroics, Heaton allowed he might have had some help.
"The Lord's been on our side a lot," he said. "It showed today."
Some witnesses suggested divine intervention gave Indians State the ball for Heatons's last shot -- when Arkansas guard Ulysses Reed stumbled to the floor with 1:02 to play. Though TV replays seemed to show Reed had been tripped by Indiana State's Carl Nicks, a referee called traveling and awarded the ball to the Sycamores.
"They haven't called walking on that play [a fall] in our league," said the losing coach. Eddie Sutton, who did not know of the TV replays. "But I'm not blaming the officiating for the loss."
What a game. Larry Bird, the Indiana State All-America, scored 31 points. The Arkansas All-America, Sidney Moncrief, had 24 and played astonishing defense against Bird, a man five inches taller. Against Moncrief in the last 13 1/2 minutes, Bird made just six points.
Arkansas shot 63.8 percent, missing only 17 shots all day. The Razorbacks made only 10 turnovers in a game played before 17,166 screaming crazies and a national television audience. They outrebounded Indiana State by five.
And yet they lost to Indiana State, belittled as a legitimate No. 1 team because experts believed their schedule weak. On this day, Indiana State beat a classy, composed team ranked fifth in the country by shooting 56.4 percent and making only seven turnovers.
"It was one of the greatest games I ever participated in," said Moncrief, who described Heaton's last shot as "a heckuva effort on the dude's part."
When the ball finished its dance on the rim and fell into the basket, Moncrief said, "The whole world crushed down on you."
Bill Hodges, the Indiana State coach who took over the job only because his boss had a heart attack last summer, said the victory was nice but he isn't celebrating yet.
"We're not just going there," he said of the final-four showdown in Salt Lake City "We're going there to win. I'm very serious. I'm sorry I can't be elated."
Then he hedged a bit.
"The feeling I have that overshadows everything else is that I'm going to get a lot of loving tonight," he said with an ever-widening smile.
If Connie Hodges, the coach's wife, is a connisseur of basketball strategy, she will be proud of her man, the rookie who became the national coach of the year this season.
Sutton, Arkansas' brainy 10-year veteran coach, wanted to attack Bird's defense. On defense, Sutton's plan was to have a forward drop off to help Moncrief cover Bird, leaving one man free.
For those maneuvers, Hodges had answers. He moved Bird out of the middle on defense, protecting him successfully, and he used Heaton to replace his poor shooters, who were left unguarded. Heaton made four of five shots.
Before Indiana State made those adjustments, it fell behind, 35-28, and trailed, 39-37, at halftime.
After six minutes of the second half, it was apparent this game would be won, not lest. Both teams played flawlessly. Bird made four buckets in four minutes, the last a 16-footer to tie it at 51-all.
Indiana State took the lead for the first time at 57-55. The way the Sycamores did it caused witnesses to think of things sportswriters call "destiny" and "fate." They did it on as silly a shot as Larry Bird ever has taken.
Falling down, Bird flipped up the ball from waist level. Brad Miley, ISU's 6-8 reserve forward, guided Bird's prayer into the basket and Indiana State led until Moncrief, a gallant warrior, made his sixth bucket in seven shots of the second half.
That came with 2:46 to play and put Arkansas ahead, 69-67.
Seventeen seconds later, Bird threw in a 20-footer.
Arkansas, forever coll, got an eightfooter from Reed in retaliation.
And when Bird made two free throws at 1:31, it was tied at 71.
With 1:08 left, Arkansas called time. Sutton wanted to hold the ball until only 15 seconds remained. Then he would call time again to set up a shot for Moncrief.
But Indiana State had the ball after the walking call and Hodges then worked the strategy Sutton wanted. With 18 seconds to go, he called time.
Hodges wanted Bird to take the last shot, but he took precautions in case that didn't work. He put in his five best shooters and told them to give the ball to Bird. If he had no shot, they were to bring it back to the other side.
It happened that way. Guard Steve Reed's pass to Heaton was deflected. For a second, the game was loose on the floor.
Arkansas' Alan Zahn said, "I reached down and got a finger on it, but he Heaton got two hands on it and took it up. Somehow he got inside. I just turned around in time to see it fall through."
"I sort of lost it in the shuffle," Heaton said. "I didn't have full control of it. I just wanted to get rid of it. I was going to take it up with my right hand, but I thought they might block it. So I put it in my left hand."