New Orleans — The seeds of victory are often planted in the furrows of defeat. You'd expect a team from farming country to grasp that fact, and the basketball players at Indiana University certainly did, cultivating a national championship from the soil of last year's tournament disappointment. The harvest came Monday night in the Superdome, when junior guard Keith Smart scored two clutch baskets in the final 32 seconds to give IU a spine-tingling 74-73 victory over Syracuse and its fifth national crown.
But getting back to last year, rather than empty their lockers after a shocking first-round loss to Cleveland State, the Hoosiers kept up regular practices until the tournament ended. Then during the summer most of the players stayed in Bloomington to work on their games.
The commitment resulted in a team that was long on tenacity, even if, in coach Bob Knight's opinion, it wasn't quite as talented as the Knight-led champions of '76 and '81.
``Each of those earlier teams was the dominant team in the tournament,'' he said. ``This team won the daggone thing by hanging in there and playing tough, making some big plays.''
After scrambling to win a share of the Big Ten title, Indiana entered the tournament top-seeded in the Midwest Regional with a 24-4 record. It blew past Fairfield and Auburn, but then had to call on every single lesson learned in Knight's pressure-treated classroom to pull out the last four victories.
Indiana beat Duke by six and Louisiana State by a point to advance to the Final Four, where the Hoosiers held off top-ranked Nevada-Las Vegas, 97-93, before spurting past Syracuse in the first-ever meeting of these traditional powers. The finale, witnessed by nearly 65,000 spectators, marked the fifth time in six years that the championship game has gone down to the wire.
Ironically, the movie ``Hoosiers,'' nominated for two Oscars, was simultaneously drawing a blank in Monday night's concurrent Academy Awards show. But Hollywood itself couldn't have done a better job of scripting the finish here.
For starters, it was fitting that guard Steve Alford led all scorers with 23 points and got to cut down a net after scorching so many during four brilliant college seasons.
When Alford came to IU after being named Indiana's ``Mr. Basketball'' as the state's best schoolboy player, he had done just about everything but give father, Sam, his high school coach, a coveted state championship.
His dad has vicariously shared in many subsequent achievements (an Olympic gold medal, All-America honors, etc.) but Monday's game represented another chance to make a dream come true.
And while Steve didn't hit the game-winning shot, it was his long-range marksmanship that fueled a sporadic offense and the threat of the same that occupied Syracuse's thoughts down the stretch.
Ironically he did practically all his damage with the 3-point shot, an innovation Knight has criticized but one that allowed Steve to give Indiana a shaky 34-33 halftime lead. In fact, Alford hit seven 3-pointers altogether to Syracuse's four, which Knight says could loosely account for Indiana's margin of victory.
The sometimes-caustic coach, who doles out his praise sparingly, was moved to pay tribute to his All-American on this occasion, noting that Alford deserved ``a little niche in the heart of everybody who likes basketball'' for squeezing so much out of limited physical abilities.
Alford turned in an inspiring performance, but on Oscars night he wound up in a supporting role to Smart, the local hero and electrifying man of the hour.
Once very Midwest-oriented in his recruiting outlook, Knight is now willing to bring in players from all over - which explains how Smart, who grew up 80 miles from here in Baton Rouge, came to wear the Indiana uniform.
As a 5 ft. 9 in. high school senior, Smart attracted so little attention that he went to work flipping hamburgers after graduation. Eventually, a friend helped him matriculate at Garden City Junior College in Kansas, where he blossomed into a 6 ft. in. 1 ballhandling blur. Word got out, and Knight was able to lure Smart to Bloomington along with another junior college product, 6-10 center Dean Garrett from San Francisco City College.
The two transfer students immediately gave the 1986-87 Hoosiers a new, improved look, but it wasn't until the last minutes Monday night that the full range of Smart's abilities was explored.
He literally took control of the game, scoring 12 of Indiana's last 15 points, grabbing rebounds, rushing the ball the length of the court, and frequently penetrating in among the tall timbers to get off difficult shots.
Not since Isiah Thomas in '81 had an Indiana player flashed so many quicksilver moves, and Smart, who finished the game with 21 points, was rewarded with selection as the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player.
Still, Syracuse, which played a masterful game, had a chance to go four up by hitting two free throws with 38 seconds left. Howard Triche was only able to make the front end of the 1-and-1,though, and Smart quickly converted a short jump shot to cut the lead to 73-72.
Syracuse's Derrick Coleman was fouled, but when his free throw try glanced off the front of the rim, Indiana grabbed the rebound. The Hoosiers then worked for one shot, which Smart made on a 16-foot jump shot with five seconds remaining.
Syracuse players frantically signaled for timeout amid the bedlam that ensued, finally getting the clock stopped with one second left. The Orangemen then tried to set up one final desperation shot, but Indiana's Guess Who? (Smart again) stole the inbounds pass.
His winning shot, incidentally, came from just about the same spot on the Superdome floor where freshman Michael Jordan had canned the decisive points in North Carolina's 63-62 championship game victory over Georgetown five years ago.
A coincidence to be sure, but an interesting bit of d'ej`a vu on a night when history, as written by Indiana's championship harvesters, was repeating itself.