Ultimately, Michigan State won the NCAA basketball title tonight the way nearly everyone figured: It had more great players than Indiana State. But one of them did not figure to be Terry Donnelly.

Donnelly is a left-handed guard who practically begged for a scholarship to a major college, who was injured badly enough to miss most of the second half of Saturday's semifinal victory and who was bedridden much of last week with a 102-degree fever.

When the Spartans needed points tonight, though, Donnelly got them. Early in the second half, he hit four long jumpers that gave MSU a 16-point lead. Later, he made the free throws that assured the championship.

"Once the game started," he said, "it (the fever) seemed all ver. We set goals before the season and we achieved the final two this weekend -- reaching the final four and then winning the championship.

"But the defense was at least as important as what we did on offense. What we tried to do with (Larry) Bird was cut him off with two men each time he put the ball on the floor."

For the game, Donnelly's delivery (five for five from the floor, five of six from the line) overwhelmed Bird's (seven for 21) -- and when that happens the Spartans win coasting.

In truth, MSU could have assured the outcome much earlier had Magic Johnson, Greg Kelser and Ron Charles not gotten into foul trouble. But that Spartan bench is deep. When Charles fouled out, Jay Vincent -- the regular center before an injury -- replaced him.

"This is better than Christmas," Johnson said moments after the victory. "This is better than all the holidays in one. I swear this thing is beautiful. It's been a hard season, but we came back. It's hard to say how beautiful this is."

And it ended with a flair, two Johnson passes that Kelser converted into stuffs. One was off a set out-of-bounds play, the other -- the gamehs final play -- "came when I just saw him,c Johnson said, "and just threw it. It was all over, you know?"

For Donnelly, the championship was especially delightful because his college career began three years ago in frustration. He was beaten out of a scholarship at Washington State and signed ever so late at East Lansing.

His role is primarily defense. He and Mike Brkovich are supposed to cover a territory in State's two-three defense that amounts to the width of the court. When they play it right, three opposition players, the point guard and both wing shooters. are neutralized from the outside.

Once Donnelly played defense so well that his coach, Jud Heathcote, overlooked a stat sheet that had nothing but zeroes in all the usually isgnificant places and said it had been as fine a game by a guard as he'd ever seen.

Tonight Donnelly even filled up the start sheet.

Bird broke down emotionally and refused to be interviewed after the game.

His coach, Bill Hodges, apologized for his All-America's failure to appear.

"I asked him in the dressing room if he would go to the interview room and he told me he would not.

"I told him he had given his just due and he could just relax. He is a good person. He does his talking on the basketball floor. I know some of you guys will not like it, but it can't be helped."

Ervin Johnson was asked if he planned to turn pro, although he is only a sophomore.

"I don't know," he said. "I gotta enjoy this first and decide later... maybe in two weeks."

His coach, Jud Heathcote said, "It's just all rumor."