Louisiana lightnin’ Smart saves Indiana

Louisiana lightnin’ Smart saves Indiana

By Andy Graham, H-T Sports Writer

March 31, 1987

NEW ORLEANS – It was Keith Smart who:

From the March 31, 1987 Bloomington Herald-Telephone

* Touched the ball last when, as time expired Monday night, he intercepted a desperation floor-length Syracuse pass and hurled the ball into the red sea of Hoosier fans at the Superdome.

* Was presented an IU flag to wave as he mounted the podium and received his individual awards as a national champion and the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player.

* Was carried around the floor by his celebrating teammates.

* Carried the NCAA championship trophy off the floor when the Hoosiers finally headed for their lockerroom.

* Received the promise of “a big, fat kiss” from Rick Calloway.

* Drew an ersatz marriage proposal from Daryl Thomas.

And all of the above was appropriate.

Because it was Keith Smart who led the Hoosiers down the stretch and hit the shot.

Boom. Dead-center. Rip-cord. From about 16 feet on the left wing with four seconds left to provide the final margin in IU-s 74-73 NCAA championship-game win over Syracuse. So, what did Smart have to say about his heroics?

“It doesn’t matter who hits the last shot,” Smart said. “This was a team accomplishment. The team won. That’s the bottom line. That’s all that mattered.”

Smart definitely mattered while he was scoring 12 of IU’s final 15 points. Smart scored 17 of his 21 points after intermission.

“I’d been standing around too much the whole first half,” Smart said. “When we stand around in our offense, that gives the defense a chance to adjust and concentrate on Steve (Alford). We have to get good motion into our offense.

“Everyone – Coach Knight, the other coaches, my teammates, the doctors – told me to settle down and play.”

Perhaps Smart’s sluggish start was due to title-game nerves. Perhaps it was due to lack of sleep, which comes back to title game nerves.

“I woke up this morning about 5 o’clock and I couldn’t sleep a wink,” Smart said. “Just couldn’t.”

There wasn’t much Smart couldn’t do when crunch-time arrived.

With Syracuse concentrating on Alford, who scored all but two of his game-high 23 points in the first 29 minutes, Smart let loose.

“I had to penetrate, dump off some passes and get some shots,” said Smart, who also contributed five rebounds and a team-high six assists. “With Syracuse so concerned about Steve, I had my chances. They were giving up the baseline a lot and, once I get a step on ’em, I’ll be all right.”

Hoosier sophomore Joe Hillman, who played with Smart and Alford in a three-guard set most of the second half, said “Keith’s penetrating created a whole lot of things for us,” Hillman said. “He’d either take it all the way himself or dish it off and, whichever, we usually got points out of it.”

The final points, of course, loomed largest.

After Thomas rebounded Derrick Coleman’s missed front-end free throw with 28 seconds left, IU held for the last shot, down 73-72, and naturally was looking for Alford. Sherman Douglas was chasing Alford. Smart got the ball to Thomas at the baseline with around 10 seconds left, but Thomas was cut off by Coleman.

“It didn’t surprise me when Daryl kicked the ball back out to me,” Smart said. “The whole year long, we didn’t force things sand Daryl didn’t force a shot there. The only thing that surprised me was that I went up for the shot and that it went in. That was the biggest surprise of all.”

Not to Alford. “Keith’s been doing that all year,” Alford said. “If one of us was not hitting or was covered defensively, the other would pick it up. I’ve said all along that teams couldn’t concentrate too much on me because Keith and our other guys are too good.”

Smart certainly demonstrated his worth in a wonderful bit of Hoosier one-upmansship.

Last week in Cincinnati’s Midwest Regional, hometown boy Calloway played hero as he scored the winning basket on a rebound in IU’s 77-76 win over Louisiana State.

It was Baton Rouge native Smart who dealt out the lightning in Louisiana.

“It was Keith’s scene,” Calloway said. “What a great thing. I’m real happy for him. I know how it feels and it feels pretty great.”

Some doubted whether IU was the proper scene for Smart and fellow junior-college transfer, center Dean Garrett. Smart and Garrett, who scored 10 points and had a team-high 10 rebounds Monday, have derived satisfaction in dispelling those doubts.

“I remember Dean reading in the paper and seeing where a junior college player had quit a team and the coach said that he’d never recruit another junior college guy,” said Smart, who had just one recruiting letter from a college as a 5-9 high school senior but had upwards of 200 as a junior college All-American. “I mean that just happened with that player there. You can’t put all of us in the same category.

“When I visited IU, which I knew was pretty new to recruiting junior college players, I was really impressed by the closeness of the team. I felt I fit in with the players right away and once I got a chance to talk to Coach Knight, that was it.”

What did Knight have to say to Smart?

“It was the straight-forwardness of Coach Knight that I really liked,” Smart said. “He told me exactly what to expect from him and exactly what he’d expect from me.

“He said, ‘Hey, it’s going to be tough to play here and I’m going to be on your butt. I’m going to be real tough, because I’ve only got two years to mold you.'”

The molding process was sometimes painful.

“There were days in practice when I wanted to quit and go home,” Smart said. “It isn’t easy to play here. There were days when I was running the (IU Assembly Hall) stairs for not doing things correctly.”

Fortunately for all concerned, Smart and Garrett stuck it out and progressed rapidly.

“I give Keith and Dean tremendous credit,” Thomas said. “What a transition they had to make. It took me 2 1/2 years of regular play here to get where I’m at. It took them 2 1/2 months.

“Coach Knight, obviously, deserves credit too. He did a great job.”

Thomas and other Hoosier partisans now view Knight’s delving into the junior-college ranks, a move spearheaded by assistant coach Joby Wright, as a very Smart tactic, indeed.

It’s one reason a fifth NCAA championship banner will soon be raised in The Hall.

ALL-FINAL FOUR

Keith Smart, Indiana (MVP) Steve Alford, Indiana Derrick Coleman, Syracuse Sherman Douglas, Syracuse Armon Gilliam, Nevada-Las Vegas