In the tradition of famous sporting combinations—Tinker to Evers, Unitas to Berry and Beliveau to Geoffrion—Michigan State now offers Earvin Johnson to Gregory Kelser. Last Sunday afternoon, during the championship game of the Mideast Region in Indianapolis, those two made the plays that set up the 80-68 victory over Notre Dame and sent the Spartans laughing to the final four. "That's our offense," Guard Terry Donnelly said. "One passes and the other one dunks."
Of course, not all of Johnson's 13 assists were directed to Kelser, and Kelser got some of his 34 points completely on his own, but the two teamed up often enough to keep the game entirely under control. They were most devastating midway through the first half when Kelser scored seven straight baskets, four of them on passes from Johnson, to extend a three-point lead to nine. The Irish never got any closer than seven points the rest of the game.
Notre Dame got blown out because only Bill Hanzlik and Tracy Jackson could connect from outside, and Coach Digger Phelps was loath to test the Spartans inside. And the Irish had no defenders to match Kelser's quickness underneath or Johnson's flair on the perimeter.
Michigan State gave an early indication of what was to come when Kelser batted the opening tip to Johnson, who then flipped the ball over his head to Mike Brkovich, breaking for a dunk. "That set the pace for the game," Phelps said later. "It was an avalanche from there."
March 26, 1979
Kelser, a senior, and Johnson, a sophomore, have been burying teams for two seasons. Their specialty is the lob and dunk, which they executed thrice. "A little eye contact is all we need," Kelser says. "I know what he's looking for and he knows what I'm looking for."
The day before the game, Johnson gave Kelser some special incentive to do well by kidding him that UCLA's David Greenwood is a better dunker. Better than Kelser? Why, Kelser, who is 6'7", has been dunking since he was a 5'10" 14-year-old. "I wasn't supposed to do it, but my first one was in a gym class during a layup drill," he recalls. "After I dunked, the coach made me do 10 pushups, but I was so excited I wanted to get up and dunk it again." Kelser had six jams against the Irish, and nobody told him to do his push-ups.
Notre Dame and Michigan State got to the finals with wins Friday over Toledo (79-71) and Louisiana State (87-71), respectively. As is their custom, the Irish didn't beat Toledo until the 11th hour. The Spartans, however, had very little trouble with LSU. Tiger Coach Dale Brown hoped that his team could take an early lead and then freeze the ball the rest of the game. That strategy fizzled when Kelser intercepted two passes and raced for driving dunks. These buckets lifted the Spartans to a 7-5 lead, and they never looked back as Johnson scored 24 points and had 12 assists.
With the preliminaries out of the way, Notre Dame and Michigan State could concentrate on each other. Their collision in the regional final had been anticipated all season, because they had begun the year as the area's highest-ranked teams and each spent some time as the No. 1 club in the nation. State Coach Jud Heathcote established the essential difference between the two when he said, "Notre Dame goes at you with nine players, and we come back at you with two."
As the Irish have shown, sometimes nine players can be a disadvantage. Every game is a war of attrition for Notre Dame, which specializes in wearing opponents down, but by making so many lineup changes, the Irish often lack the consistency, cohesiveness and individual spark of other outstanding teams. "We dillydally in the first half," says Hanzlik, "and count on a spurt at the end."
Michigan State has never had that kind of luxury. The Spartans have relied on five men plus a sub and a half all year, and now, with Center Jay Vincent nursing a sore foot, they have no depth at all. Heathcote believes success is not a matter of how many but who and where. After losing four of six games in January, he moved the 6'8" Johnson from guard to forward, brought Brkovich off the bench to play guard and dropped Ron Charles, who started in Vincent's place last week, back to sixth man. "I analyzed our club incorrectly at the start of the season," Heathcote says. "I thought Earvin could destroy people at guard, but I learned he needs the freedom of being able to set up inside and outside both."
Despite his redesignation as a forward, Johnson still handles the ball most of the time, and he is going to cause trouble no matter where he plays or who guards him. Notre Dame put its top defender, the 6'7" Hanzlik, on Johnson, but the best defense may have been suggested by Kelser, who said, "If it were me, I'd say something about his mother and then hope he'd hit me and get ejected."
Johnson was not about to do anything as stupid as that against the Irish. After the Spartans' loss to Kentucky in last year's Mideast final, he wanted to win too much. "I don't think State will be back next year," he said. "Kelser is a senior, and as for me, I don't know what I'm going to do about the pros. So this is it. This is our chance right here."
As Notre Dame will long remember, they made the most of it.