Michigan State shelved much of its magic tonight, choosing instead to play a more conservative, hard-nosed, defense-oriented game. It paid off with a 75-64 victory over previously undefeated Indiana State and the Spartans' first-ever NCAA basketball championship.
Earvin (Magic) Johnson, the Spartans' 6-foot-8 All-America ball-handling whiz, showed he still can control a game even when he is not amazing the opposition with unbelievable passes and moves.
Except for a couple of flashes, Johnson played it close to the vest, but the results were the usual for him. He scored 24 points and had seven rebounds and five assists while in control of the game from the beginning.
Teammate Gregory Kelser was in foul trouble much of the game, but still scored 18 points and had eight rebounds, nine assists and two blocked shots.
The Spartans complicated 2-3 match-up zone defense gave Indiana State's Larry Bird all sorts of problems and he was held to 19 points, making only seven of 21 shots. Bird had only tow assists and with him that much out of the Indiana State offense, the Sycamores were in trouble.
Michigan State was forced into playing more conservatively than its usual racehorse style because of foul trouble, not only to Kelser, but to Johnson as well.
The Spartans started out as if Indiana State, despite its 33-0 record going into the game, would not be any more of a challenge than Michigan State had faced in its four previous lopsided tournament victories.
After trailing, 8-7, the Spartans reeled off nine straight points, four by Kelser, to take a 16-8 lead.
With Kelser and Johnson doing most of the damage, the Spartans moved to a 12-point lead at 35-23 with 2:21 left in the first half.
The Spartans led by nine at the half, 37-28, but Kelser and Johnson had three fouls apiece and Michigan State Coach Jud Heathcote knew he had to do something to keep them in the game. He slowed things down, or better yet, he told Johnson to slow things down.
"The Magic Man directed the show and we got out of trouble," Heathcote said. It was not easy.
The Spartans scored the first seven points of the second half to take a 44-28 lead and it looked then as if the Sycamores were ready to crumble. They kept plugging away, however, as Bob Heaton hit a couple of long jumpers, Bird got loose for a pair of scoring shots and the Spartans bogged down.
Terry Donnelly managed to keep the Spartans cushion at at least 10 points by hitting three straight long shots, but once Kelser picked up his fourth foul with 15:33 to play, the Sycamores made their big push.
Heathcote took Kelser out of the game then, replacing him with Jay Vincent. Vincent has been severely hampered all tournament long with a bruised foot and with him hobbled and Kelser out of the game, the Sycamores started getting the ball inside. They controlled the boards and gradually worked their way back into the game.
A baseline jumper by Bird, a Bird free throw, a 20-footer by Carl Nicks and another baseline jumper by Bird got Indiana State to within six points at 52-46 with 10:05 to play, but that was as close as they were to come.
Heathcote hurried Keser back into the game and he and Johnson combined for Michigan State's next eight points as the Spartans again led by 11 with five minutes to play. They ran a delay game the rest of the way, with Johnson, the tournament's most valuable player, directing things, and Indiana State's national championship dreams were over.
By playing more conservatively in the second half and with Donnelly five for five, the Spartans made 12 of their 16 second-half shots and shot 61 percent for the game.
Indiana State shot only 42 percent and missed 12 of its 22 free-throw attempts.
"We just had a bad shooting night, both field goals and from the free-throw line," said Indiana State Coach Bill Hodges. "When you come down to the final night, you have to have a great game to win and this wasn't one for us. I'll tell you, though, we had a great year and we're proud of that."
Indiana State's problems were a direct result of Michigan State's defense prohibiting Bird from dominating his team's offense. like he usually does.
The back corner men in the Michigan State zone -- Johnson and Kelser -- followed Bird farther out than he is used to and they did not let him inside very often.Whenever he did get the ball inside, someone generally had a hand in his face. Four times Bird shot air balls and after a while his teammates didn't try as hard to get the ball to him.
"I thought maybe Indiana State would try to work the ball into Bird more than they did," Heathcote said, "but I think you have to credit our defense from preventing that."
Bird said his team "gave it the best we had. We just didn't hit the shots. I hate to lose, just like all the other guys on the team, but I guess we did all right. We won 33 games."
Even though they didn't put on their usual slam-dunking show, the Spartans, who finished 26-6, did come up with a couple of magic tricks to bring the University of Utah's Special Events Center capacity crowd of 15,410 to its feet.
Their biggest came in the first half. Bird missed a shot and Johnson grabbed the rebound and took off up court with a dribble. When he got to about 20 feet from the basket, he launched the ball up toward the rim. Seemingly out of nowhere Kelser came flying in, grabbed the ball about three feet ablove the rim and jammed it home.
"I don't care what game it is, we have to get at least one play like that a game," Johnson said. "We wouldn't be Michigan State if we didn't."