It ended with Larry Bird in tears. Brad Miley, his buddy, looked down at Bird, who had a towel pressed to his face.Indiana State had been beaten for the first time, losing the national college basketball championship tonight to Michigan State, 75-64. Bird wept, and Miley said, "C'mon, man, let's get that throphy. Thirty-three and one. A helluva year. Get up."
They put Bird in a cage tonight. In 33 victories, Bird had scored just under 30 points a game on 53 percent shooting. In this defeat, Bird made only seven of 21 shots. He put up some ugly shots, and he made six turnovers. Of the last six shots of his college career, Bird made one.
With about 3 1/2 minutes to play, Indiana State trailed only 61-54 and was on a rally from 16 points down. Guard Steve Reed missed an 18-footer and Bird grabbed off the rebound directly in front of the bucket.
No Michigan State man was in the air with Bird. He was alone going up, maybe two feet from a field goal that would bring Indiana State within five points. Given 1,000 shots from that spot, Bird would make 1,000.
Except he didn't make this one. For some reason, the ball flew straight up out of his hands, sailing maybe four feet over the rim. It was a hurried shot. It bore the stamp of fright. It didn't come close to going in.
Bird turned away in disgust. He stomped. "Damn," he said.
Michigan State wn the NCAA Tournament tonight with defense. It is conventional wisdom in college basketball that no team wins the national championship with a zone defense. Purists believe a zone breeds laziness in the defenders and is too vulnerable to a team shooting well from outside.
Forget it. Larry Bird did not go seven for 21 because he is a bad shooter. The player of the year, pro basketball's next millionaire, is the fifth leading scorer ever in college. He went seven for 21 because Michigan State's 2-3 matchup zone did to him what it does to everyone: it frustrated him.
This game was the first time all year that Indiana State scored fewer than 66 points; for Michigan State, it was the 21st time the Spartans had limited an opponent to less than 66.That is no accident.
The 2-3 matchup zone does it. With two little men making up the front "2" and three big men in the back "3", the defenders are asked to cover a small portion of the floor. That's the "zone" part of this defense.
The "matchup" -- to continue for a moment this exercise in jargon -- describes a defender's work when an offensive player comes into his zone. Then the defender plays man-to-man defense; he matches up with the man.
What this accomplishes is that no offensive player ever moves with the ball except that he is guarded by one man tightly with another defender coming to help out.
So every time Larry Bird had the ball, he had a whole lot of company from Michigan State's perpetual-motion defenders.
"Our defense was adjustment and a prayer," said the winning coach, Jud Heathcote. "Seriously, we wanted a man-and-a-half on Bird every time he got the ball. When he put the ball on the floor, we wanted a forward and a guard on him."
The defense performed spectacularly. Those back "3" men make it work because each has arms 27 feet long, or so it seems to anyone bold enough to enter his territory. Bird learned that early in tonight's game.
Bird, as he always does, moved laterally across the free throw lane to take a pass. To get there, he moved through a forest of arms. As he caught the ball, not 1 1/2 men guarded him; three did. He went up to shoot, as he always does on this move.
But he had no shot. Those arms were higher than Bird's hands. Bird was in the air. His usual escape in this embarrassing situation is a pass to the open man under the basket.
But no one was open. Embarrassment turned to mortification. So, off-balance and twisted sideways, Bird threw up a line drive shot from 14 feet. It hit the underside of the rim.
"It was our defense that caused Larry to look bad," said Earvin (Magic) Johnson, one of the back "3." "He had to hurry a few shots."
Without Vird scoring his accustomed 30 points -- he had but 19 tonight -- Indiana State is no match for maybe 20 other teams, let alone Michigan State.
"Stuff the Bird... Stuff the Bird," came the pregame chant from Michigan State's cheering section. Would-be taxidermists from Virginia, Arkansas and Chicago couldn't do it. When it mattered most tonight -- in the last 10 minutes -- Michigan State did it best.
Bird's 12-footer moved Indiana State within six points at 52-46 with 10 minutes to play. The Sycamores had outscored Michigan State 12-2 in five minutes.
From there on, Bird missed a 20-foot jumper, missed a rebound shot and made a 10-footer before missing -- badly -- a 15-footer, that miserable rebound shot and a 20-footer.
Brad Miley, Bird's teammate and buddy, shouted to Indiana State players to get up off the bench, to end the grieving. He was proud of that second-place trophy. Bird kept his head in the towel, pushing it sgainst his eyes, and then someone on the public address system said, "For Indiana State... Larry Bird."
Bird rose slowly to fetch his tournament souvenir and as he stepped up on a platform at center court, the Indiana State fans sent cheers to dry his tears.