On a night when Larry Bird drew thunderous applause for a pass, of all things, he also scored 29 points to lead No. 1-ranked Indiana State past Oklahoma, 93-72, in tonight's semifinals of the NCAA Midwest Regional.
The undefeated Sycamores, now 310, joined Arkansas, 73-62 winner over Louisville tonight, in Saturday afternoon's regional championship game.
"Bird's shooting, as good as it was tonight, is not going to win as many games as his passing," said Dave Bliss, the Oklahoma coach. "Indiana State is a very fine basketball team, but Larry Bird is one helluva player. You can't really judge him until you play against him."
And then you see things you've seldom seen from a 6-foot-9 1/2 forward. Forget his 11-of-19 shooting tonight and pay small attention to the 15 rebounds. It was nice that the college player of the year is so unselfish he hurls his body about recklessly, once diving into a courtside table.
But forget all that, and remember this pass...
Indiana State led, 35-33, with four minutes left in the first half. The Sycamores were in a streak that Bliss would call the game's turning point. "We lost control," he said, and here Bird made the pass.
First, he flicked the ball loose from an Oklahoma man's hands in the Indiana State free-throw lane. Grabbing the free ball, Sycamore guard Carl Nicks quickly threw it back to Bird in the lane, 12 feet from the hoop, his back to the basket.
The ball barely touched Bird's hands, so quickly did he shuffle it like a magician second baseman moving a baseball to first on the double play -- to a wide-open Leroy Stanley, under the basket. Fouled, Stanley made two free throws.
And the capacity crowd of 17,252 approved Bird's pass with a sustained ovation of the kind normally reserved for a gorilla dunk. Even as Stanley went to the line, the ovation continued.
"The crowd likes Larry's spectacular passes," said his coach, Bill Hodges, who has seen hundreds of them. "I like the routine ones."
Playing aggressive defense that limited Oklahoma to 44 percent shooting and working so efficiently on offense that it shot 58.3 percent, Indiana State controlled the game from there on.
The Sycamores' 50-22 domination of the rebounding was one more piece of evidence that they are a genuine contender for the national championship.
If anyone suspected this team was simply Bird & Four Twerps, Alex Gilbert's six-for-seven shooting (with nine breathtaking rebounds) and Nicks' 20 points should change minds.
"Indiana State is like the Yankees of the late '50s and '60s," Bliss said. "Every season they'd come up with a retread player and win it all. I'm not comparing Indiana State's players to retreads, but they play a lot better when they're playing with the best player, Larry Bird."
Hodges, who may set an NCAA record for modesty before this is over, refused to say tonight's victory proved Indiana State is rightfully ranked No. 1.
"All the four-corner teams are out of it," is all the coach would say. He said it smiling.
Arkansas, once ahead by 17 points, needed the late-game heroics of All-America guard Sidney Moncrief to earn its 14th straight victory.
Moncrief, who had a game-high 27 points and 12 rebounds, scored 11 of his points in the last six minutes of the game. They helped the South-west Conference champions erase Louisville's 56-55 lead.
Arkansas overwhelmed Louisville early with stifling defense and patient offense, but the Cardinals rallied with a full-court press that produced a 14-0 scoring splurge midway through the second half.
But in the 2 1/2 minutes following Louisville's seizure of the lead, Arkansas went on a 7-0 binge of its own. Moncrief had five of the points, the last two on a majestic running stuff shot.
Arkansas, the NCAA third-place finisher last season, now is 25-4.