North Carolina center Sam Perkins sat in front of his locker with his head down. He was visibly shaken and crying, not because of the attempted assassination of President Reagan earlier in the day in Washington, but because his team had been soundly defeated by Indiana in the NCAA championship game.
"The shooting of the president wasn't on my mind," said Perkins, a 6-foot-9 freshman. "He just wasn't in my thoughts. I take what's going on in Atlanta much more personally."
The man of the hour, tournament MVP Irish Thomas of Indiana, who was marvelous in the second half, said the Hoosiers' spirits were lifted when they found out the president's condition was stable.
"We were happy that the president wasn't dead," said Thomas, the self-proclaimed spokesman for the Hoosiers. "A lot of people get shot. We were just happy he could think with his brain, that's the most important part. We were just trying to win a ball game tonight."
"It was something that happened," said Randy Wittman, Thomas' backcourt mate. "It was a tragic thing. We felt for him and for the other people who were shot, buy like Isiah said, we had a national championship on the line and we had to go out and play."
Neither team was told that the NCAA committee had discussed the possibility of calling off the game. Carolina had already begun its warmups and Indiana was getting its final pregame pep talk from Coach Bob Knight while the final decision was being made.
"Number one, it was a tragic thing," said Tar Heel Coach Dean Smith. "We heard the president was in stable condition. Had the president been near death, like President Kennedy, a lot of things were called off. I didn't want NBC to make the decision. I wanted the NCAA to make it. I didn't want the game called off just because the Academy Awards were called off."
By game time, the tragic events of the day had been temporarily forgotten, at least by the players.
Thomas, one of the finest point guards to ever play this game, went to work against the Tar Heels in the second half. The Indiana sophomore scored 19 of his game-high 23 points in the final 20 minutes and made several dramatic defensive plays.
But don't ask Thomas what the key play in the game was. Certainly, it had to be one of the many big plays he made. Wrong.
"Randy (Wittman) hit that basket at the end of the first half and it gave us the momentum we needed for the second half," said Thomas, who joined teammates Jim Thomas and Landon Turner, North Carolina's Al Wood and Virginia's Jeff Lamp on the alltourney team.
"I was just in the right place at the right time for those steals. But Randy's basket was the big play tonight."
Carolina used an assortment of defenses to keep Indiana off guard. In fact, they worked so well, Thomas, Tolbert and Ted Kitchel could manage a total of only seven points.
What the Tar Heels didn't plan on was Wittman's scoring consistently from long range. Even the 6-6 junior, who has lived with the anonymity of being in the back court with the charismatic Thomas, was a little surprised at his 16-point production. He was seven for 13 from the floor and two for two from the free throw line.
"Carolina played a lot of zone early and I was open," said Wittman, who averaged around 10 points per game. "They were letting me have that shot.
"We played a little poorly in the opening minutes, but our defense kept Carolina from getting too far in front. Even when we were down by eight points in the first half, we were confident we would come back.
"Everybody worked hard and we finally hit some baskets. Once they were up and suddenly they were down at the half by a point," Wittman said. "And when we came out fast in the second half, it was tough for them to get back in the game."
Wittman had 10 of his 16 points in the first half. He made three straight jump shots, including an 18-footer from the corner after taking an Irish Thomas pass with one second lift, to give the Hoosiers their 27-26 lead at the half.
"We knew we were in good shape then," said Thomas, who said he probably would return to Indiana next year, rather than turn pro. "We wanted to come out fast in the second half and make them come after us."
With Thomas, Wittman and Jim Thomas, who played well in reserve for the second consecutive game, leading the way, Indiana moved out to the lead it never relinguished in the second half.Thomas made two nifty steals that he turned into breakaways and Carolina never recovered.