When it became obvious that neither muscle nor magic would produce a winner in the championship game of the NCAA Mideast Regional at Dayton last Saturday, Kentucky's Kyle Macy stepped to the free-throw line, wiped his hands on his socks and scored the points that beat Michigan State 52-49. Macy does not have the size of his bruising teammates or the style of Spartan freshman Earvin (Magic) Johnson, but when the score is close and the time says now, he can coolly put the screws to you.
Macy's three-point play with 6:16 remaining broke a 41-41 tie, and his six straight one-and-one free throws in the last three minutes kept top-ranked Kentucky in front. After the last one went down, cool Kyle had the tournament's outstanding player award, and the SEC champions had a trip to the NCAA finals in St. Louis.
Macy's 18-point performance was quite the reverse of his showing two days earlier, when Kentucky defeated Miami University 91-69 in the regional semis. While five of his teammates were scoring in double figures, the sophomore guard was hitting one for three from the floor and scoring only two points, a puny performance for a player who had entered the game with a 13-point average on 55% shooting. Later that evening, while Coach Joe Hall was working on a plate of lasagna at a Dayton restaurant, he said prophetically, "Kyle hasn't even showed up yet. But Michigan State will know he's there on Saturday."
Macy is not the type of player you pay much attention to anyway, at least not on a team that includes the 6'10" twin towers, Rick Robey and Mike Phillips; 6'5", 230-pound James Lee; and 6'4", 205-pound Jack Givens. "Even watching Kentucky kind of bruises you up a bit," said Michigan State Coach Jud Heathcote before the finals. "I hope it's a game, not a fight. If anybody ever came at me in a dark alley, I'd like to have those guys on my side." (In such circumstances, Macy would not be good for much more than holding the flashlight.)
March 27, 1978
Although Heathcote did not intend to be critical—"There is no substitute for aggressiveness and intensity, and I think you achieve that by being physical," he said—Hall bristled at that kind of talk. To him, "physical" is a polite way of saying "dirty." Hall retorted with vehemence, "We don't give forearm shivers. But we are athletes and not ballet dancers."
Just before the Wildcats beat Miami, Big Ten champion Michigan State defeated Western Kentucky 90-69. The Spartans also had five players in double figures, but unlike Kentucky, they got their balanced scoring by using finesse. Though Forward Greg Kelser and Guard Robert Chapman each had 23 points, it was Johnson's magic that got the raves. Working mostly from the top of the key, the 6'8" forward-guard whipped the ball inside for 14 razzling-dazzling assists. Even the most persnickety of onlookers did not seem to care that Johnson was shooting three for 17.
No one was more impressed, or more concerned, by Johnson's play than Hall. "I don't believe you can stop him," he said. "I can't tell you when I've seen a more exciting player. I really am afraid that he can beat us."
Despite the big buildup, the confrontation between muscle and magic never took place. The Spartans got a 27-22 lead in the first half, but not because of anything that Johnson did. Instead teammates Kelser and 6'8" freshman Center Jay Vincent repeatedly used their quickness to beat Kentucky's man-to-man and take the ball inside for layups and dunks. Johnson occasionally got past Givens or Macy, but he slammed one shot hard off the glass and put up an air ball before finally twisting down the lane to jam a dunk late in the half.
Kentucky's real problem was trying to score against Michigan State's 2-1-2 zone defense. The Spartans took away the Wildcats' inside game by tightening up the middle, and lethargic Kentucky did not have good enough shooting or ball movement around the perimeter to loosen it up.
Kentucky got back into the game, and eventually won, because of two major adjustments made at halftime. It should not be forgotten that for all the Wildcats' talent on the court, they also have plenty of strength on the bench, in the person of Joe Hall. The week before, in a first-round victory over Florida State, Hall had shaken up his team—and Wildcat fans—by opening the second half with starters Givens, Robey and Guard Truman Claytor on the bench. This time he did not change his lineup, but he did revise his strategy. He went to a 1-3-1 zone that spread his big men across the middle and prevented Michigan State from penetrating. On offense, he told Robey to come outside and set screens to free Macy. After 10 minutes of the second half, Kentucky had battled back to a 35-35 tie, appropriately punctuating the occasion with Lee's booming dunk.
Hall actually got more than he had hoped for from his defensive adjustment. He tried the zone, though he feared Johnson might be able to maneuver through the seams. Instead, Heathcote took Johnson from the point and put him deep in the corner where he seldom got the ball and continued to shoot poorly when he did. "Earvin was neutralized by the zone," Heathcote said, "because a 1-3-1 keeps the point man from penetrating."
Hall's offensive adjustment, which he credited to Assistant Coach Leonard Hamilton, might have been wasted had the Wildcats not shot better in the second half. Macy was two for five in each period, but Kentucky's team percentage jumped from 40 in the first half to 57 in the second. The improvement was immediately apparent as Phillips, Robey and Givens used their size and strength to work inside for the Wildcats' first three baskets of the half.
Although Macy did not score every time he went around a Robey pick, he did draw fouls that either sent him to the line for two shots or put Kentucky that much closer to getting one-and-one bonus opportunities. And when the bonus came with 8:25 left to play, Macy, a 90% foul shooter, was ready for it. He scored nine of Kentucky's last 11 points, two on a jumper and seven on free throws that rarely touched anything but netting. For someone who once hit 114 in a row just fooling around in the gym, 10 of 11 for the game was hardly a feat.
In fact, the boisterous crowd and the two time-outs that Michigan State called when Macy was at the foul line with a one-point lead only made it easier for him. "The crowd made me concentrate more," he said, "and the time-outs let me get a breather."
A few more second winds like that may be all Kentucky needs to win the national championship.