Isiah Thomas, one of the best guards in college basketball, is known around here as Houdini. But, despite Thomas' efforts, Kentucky pulled the magic act today and the second-ranked Wildcats pulled out an 68-66 victory.
Thomas owned the second half, coming from nowhere to make interceptions, slipping invisible passes through the Kentucky defense. But Coach Joe B. Hall pulled his young players together and they responded with a zany victory that left Hall smiling and shaking his head.
"I don't know how the wins can get any sweeter than this one," said Hall.
Any victory over Indiana and Bobby Knight is sweet for Kentucky, but a victory in Assembly Hall -- where Indiana loses about as often as the nation holds presidential elections -- is something special.
To beat Indiana today, Kentucky had to overcome foul trouble, the 17,254 fans who filled Assembly Hall and a 20-point, five-rebound, five-assist game by Thomas. In a vain attempt to contain him, Hall used five different players to guard him at one point or another.
The game finally turned in Kentucky's favor on a bit of Thomas magic that went awry and a couple of big plays by the player who is fast becoming Kentucky's best performer under pressure, sophomore Charles Hurt. With the score tied at 62, Thomas lofted a perfect high pass that Indiana center Ray Tolbert caught with two hands and began to dunk. There seemed to be no way he could miss.
"I thought it was automatic," Thomas said.
"You can't get much better than a two-inch shot," said Knight.
The ball hit the rim and bounced into the hands of Indiana's Sam Bowie.
"I just missed it," said Tolbert later. "I had it. It was there."
Seconds later, Hurt put in a follow shot to give Kentucky a 64-62 lead and, after a jumper by Indiana's Ted Kitchel and two free throws by Kentucky's Dick Minniefield, Hurt turned in a bit of magic of his own.
With 18 seconds to go, and the Hoosiers playing for a good shot, Kitchel looked inside and saw 6-foot-9 junior Landon Turner wide open. But just as the bal reached Turner's hands -- "I touched it, but I never got control of it," Turner said -- Hurt knocked it away. As Hurt flew out of bounds, Minniefield scooped up the ball and the victory.
"I was just hustling and trying to do my job," said Hurt.
His job lately has been to save Kentucky's hide. He also was a hero against Ohio State Wednesday in Lexington. With the score tied at 64 in that game,Hurt intercepted a pass and drove all the way for a dunk that gave Kentucky the lead in a 70-64 victory.
After Hurt's defensive play yesterday, a free throw by Bowie gave Kentucky a 67-64 lead. Then, after Thomas scored an uncontested layup with only five seconds to go, Minniefield hit another free throw to give Kentucky its winning margin.
"I guess they thought I wasn't playing too well, that I might choke up," Minniefield said.
As he danced happily off the floor, Minniefield waved goodbye to the fans sitting stonily in their seats. Goodbye at least until next March. The NCAA Mideast regional will be played here and Kentucky now has a 3-0 record, would like to come back.
Isiah Thomas hopes Indiana, now 2-1, will get another chance at Kentucky.
"We just missed too many opportunities," Thomas said."I still think we should have beat them."