The freak is dead; long live the king of the freakin' sidelines. That is, long live the Indiana Hoosiers and their excitable coach, Bob Knight, who beat LSU 77-76 to win the Midwest Regional. But also, long live those lovable knaves, Dale Brown and his ragtag Tigers, who used various versions of their "Freak" defense to come within a rushed shot by a guy with a Russian first name of sneaking back home as the regional champions themselves.
Alas, for all those Loose-ianians who kept up a screaming, profane dialogue with Knight at Cincinnati's Riverfront Coliseum—they hadn't forgotten the 1981 Final Four, when the Indiana coach slammed an LSU fan into a trash can—the Tigers' Freak defense had no provision for placing barricades on the free throw line. That's where Indiana's Steve Alford swished 10 of 10 and his teammates 5 of 5 down the stretch. Nor did it take into account the homing-pigeon instincts of Cincy's hometown boy, Rick Calloway, who knifed along the baseline to tip in the winning basket and final points of the courageous rally that brought the Hoosiers from 12 points behind in the second half.
Knight had raged his way to a first-half technical foul, slammed his fist on a court-side telephone, kicked a chair (nearly sending a Hoosier player into orbit), cussed out NCAA tournament brass, exchanged epithets with an LSU student wearing Tiger-fur pants—"Wave that pompon at Knight again and I'll shove it...," shouted the IU team doctor as he shoved the pompon back in Tiger-fur's face—and made some key substitutions; then he praised the Tigers. "As good a collection of athletes, playing hard...", Knight said. "Nikita Wilson could have ripped us apart. I never saw a guy turn and shoot so quick."
Luckily for Indiana, when LSU had six seconds to go the length of the court for the winning basket after Calloway's tip-in, the Tigers could not get the ball to Wilson quickly enough. His turnaround jumper from 12 feet wouldn't have counted even if it had dropped.
Luckily for IU as well, LSU's Brown, who over the weekend dropped references to Imelda Marcos, Rocky Marciano, the Titanic, Rasputin, Saturn, Bo Derek, Jim Bakker, Twiggy, Haiti, Anita Bryant, dèjà vu, voodoo and General MacArthur into his ramblings about the Freak and overcoaching, may have outsmarted himself by going to a delay offense too soon. Over the last 4:18 the Tigers, who had been outplaying Indiana by aggressively running and attacking the basket, did not take a single shot until Nikita's nyet-cord effort after the buzzer.
With Anthony Wilson and freshman Fess Irvin hitting from outside to support Nikita (20 points) down low, LSU had overcome a one-point halftime deficit to take a 63-51 lead with 12:24 left. When Calloway caromed an easy dunk into an out-of-bounds turnover at 4:38, the Hoosiers were still behind 75-66 and looked dead in the (Ohio) river.
But it was the Tigers whose lungs filled up, as they had only one free throw to show for their last eight possessions. Stalling was not a totally stupid strategy. Not getting the ball to Nikita Wilson was. "Unstoppable," Indiana center Dean Garrett (17 points, 15 rebounds) had pronounced him. Said a relieved and grateful Knight, "They chose to eliminate Nikita."
What is more, Indiana still had fouls to give. So while Hoosier sub Joe Hillman was making a gutty three-point fast break—"the play of the game," said Knight, "a pinch-hit home run in the ninth"—to draw the Hoosiers to 75-71, his teammates were scrapping and chasing and gambling for steals.
After 18 first-half points, Alford didn't score from the field, but when teammate Keith Smart drained two foul shots, the Hoosiers had nearly caught LSU anyway: 76-75 with 40 seconds remaining. After Calloway committed a foul and Irvin failed to Fess up—he missed the front end of a one-and-one—Indiana had the ball back with 26 seconds left to play. "I'm not one for set plays," said Knight, who eschewed a timeout. "Anyway, we were in the Freak offense."
Daryl Thomas turned in the lane looking for contact from one of the Tiger big men, but he got none and his jumper hit nothing but air. However, a hand here, a tip there and finally Calloway sent the Hoosiers thataway—right into LSU's backyard for the Final Four.
It wasn't as if Indiana had to negotiate a mine field to reach the regional final. The Hoosiers had played their sub-regional games in Indianapolis before venturing to Cincinnati, which is a 150-mile drive from Bloomington and a scant 30 miles from Milan, Ind., the tiny, but celebrated burg with the 1954 state championship team featuring the immortal Bobby Plump that inspired the hit film Hoosiers.
Moreover, Indiana was challenged in the regional by a threadbare duo of over-achievers. Duke opened the season gutted by graduation; LSU was ninth in the SEC after five league games, which Brown nonetheless compared with being "first in the Mexican League."
Los dos amigos, Knight and his former Army point guard and Indiana graduate assistant, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, wearied of the hype surrounding their game even as Coach K (the single syllable) described Coach K (the Polish version) as his favorite player while Krzyzewski said it was an "honor" to play against Indiana.
"How many ways," Krzyzewski said, "can I tell you that I love [him] and that we have a great relationship?"
But on Friday, Indiana experienced a life-threatening 29-21 deficit to the Dookies before Knight switched Alford off the swift Tommy Amaker. In short order, Alford, now free to concentrate on his offense, racked up two baskets and handed out two assists, Indiana had 21 points (while holding Duke to four), and the game was well on its way toward its 88-82 conclusion.
"LSU?" said Baton Rouge native Smart of the team that had upset DePaul 63-58 on the strength of 24 Nikita Wilson points. "I play against these guys every summer. Just another game."
That it wasn't just another game could be attributed to the heart and soul of both teams. "The LSU Tigers," Brown announced, "one of the truly great sports stories of all time." It's just a shame that they stopped playing before time ran out.