For the past month, No. 2-ranked Michigan has been listening to people scoff at its weak pre-Big Ten basketball schedule. It has heard dire predictions of what would happen when league play began.
Tonight, Big Ten play began in earnest and the Wolverines proved they are as tough as they are talented. Facing a rejuvenated Indiana team that began the game with an 8-0 spurt and hit 13 of its first 14 shots in the second half, Michigan (13-0) refused to back down and beat the Hoosiers, 74-69, in the league opener for both teams before 17,253 in Assembly Hall.
The Wolverines got most of their scoring from their guards and their center. Gary Grant had 21 points, his running mate, Antoine Joubert, had 18 and center Roy Tarpley had 20 points and seven rebounds.
"It was exactly the kind of game I expected," Michigan Coach Bill Frieder said. "It was tough and aggressive and we really had to keep our poise to hang on, especially at the end when Steve Alford wouldn't miss."
Alford, Indiana's superb junior guard, shot his team back into the game when it appeared Michigan might be on its way to a romp. With the Hoosiers (8-3) trailing, 56-44, and less than 10 minutes remaining, Alford, who was one for five in the first half, hit six straight shots. His last three, each from long range, cut the lead to three points.
"We knew coming in here that this was about as tough a game as we could face," said Joubert, who made all his free throws down the stretch. "We just had to stay cool when they were coming at us. We did."
Indeed. Consider: With 5:24 left, Alford stopped for a pull-up jumper from 20 feet that made it 61-58. The Wolverines calmly ran 42 seconds off the 45-second clock before Grant (nine for 13) made a tough base-line move and swished a 14-footer. Fifteen seconds later, Alford went base line and swished another outside shot to make it 63-60.
Now, the clock was at 4:30. This time, the Wolverines ran 30 seconds off before Butch Wade rebounded Joubert's miss and got fouled. The two free throws made it 65-60. This time it took Alford (20 points) 10 seconds to answer. But, 30 seconds after that, Richard Rellford hit from the lane and it was 67-62.
Then came the game's final key play -- one that sent Indiana Coach Bob Knight into a rage. A good pass inside from Hoosiers freshman Rich Calloway (17 points) found Steve Eyl open for a layup. But as Eyl's shot bounded around the rim, Indiana's Andre Harris went up as if to tip it, then pulled his hand back.
The ball finally bounced through but official London Bradley rushed in and called offensive goaltending on Harris. The bucket would have cut the lead to three again with 3:07 still left.
"I didn't touch it," Harris said. "I wasn't close."
Replays appeared to support his contention but didn't change Bradley's call. Bradley was the official who called the technical on Knight last season that led to the infamous chair-throwing incident. He already had called a technical on Knight in the first half. After this call, Knight had to be restrained by his assistant coaches as he screamed at Bradley.
"One way or the other I think we were going to win, call or no-call," Frieder said. "Our kids had already kept their poise all the way when they were making their run."
"What hurt us was the first half," said Indiana center Daryl Thomas, who came in averaging 17 points and five rebounds but fouled out with eight points and no rebounds. "We got out of our offense after we got the quick lead and let them turn it around on us too quickly. We dug too big a hole."
The hole was 35-27 at half and grew steadily until Alford got hot. By then it was too late. After a month of easy primers against Eastern, Western and Northern Michigan, the Wolverines had passed their first big test. St. John's 95, Providence 90: Walter Berry scored 35 points, including two free throws with one second left in regulation, and got 12 rebounds in leading the 10th-ranked Redmen (12-1) to an overtime victory over home-standing Providence (8-3) in a Big East opener.
Providence's Bill Donovan made an 18-foot jumper with three seconds left in regulation, then fouled Berry. Illinois 76, Minnesota 57: In Champaign, Ill., guard Tony Wysinger scored 19 points to lead the 14th-ranked Illini over the Golden Gophers in a Big Ten Conference opener. It was the 31st straight home-court victory for Illinois (10-2), one shy of the school record set in 1953. Minnesota is 10-4.
Va. Tech 74, James Madison 65: The No. 20 Hokies struggled at home in Blacksburg, playing without top scorer Dell Curry (ankle injury). Virginia Tech (10-2) got 21 points from Keith Colbert and 20 from Bobby Beecher. The Dukes are 2-7. LSU 85, Georgia 73: In Baton Rouge, La., forward Nikita Wilson scored 19 points, 13 in the second half, to lead the No. 8 Tigers (13-0) over the Bulldogs (7-3) in a Southeastern Conference opener. Syracuse 68, BC 52: No. 4 Syracuse, playing at home, trailed by five at halftime but ran up a 42-21 second half in a Big East opener. The 9-0 Orangemen dropped the Eagles to 8-3. $ UTEP 69, Brigham Young 64: Junior guard Hernell Jackson scored the final four points, his only points of the game, to ensure Texas-El Paso's overtime victory in a Western Athletic Conference opener.
The game's biggest lead was nine points by the Miners (12-1). Brigham Young dropped to 3-8 for the season.