NEW ORLEANS — It was after midnight when the glass slipper finally gave way. One second. One miserable second. They were that far from another amazing victory, that far from sleeping on the doorstep of the Final Four. And then a freshman from New York City let fly a shot that would make any playground proud, and it fell through the nets and the miracle was on its way out.
Was it good? No. Is it over? Yes. That’s what it comes down to. The replay of that final shot by Kenny Anderson that killed the Spartans’ season clearly showed that it was released after the horn sounded. It was no good; the Spartans should be playing Sunday, not Georgia Tech.
But such is the nature of officiating and buzzer-beaters. There was plenty more basketball after that. An entire overtime period. Missed shots and missed opportunities that could have turned the scoreboard around. But the truth is, when Anderson’s shot sliced through the nets, it sliced through the heart of the Spartan dream as well.
It went in? Yes. Was it good? No. But that didn’t matter to Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets dove into a delirious pile on the floor, figuring it was a three-pointer and they had won. Even when told there were five minutes left, they carried that new life with them. And a dazed Spartan team, which had just about unlaced the gloves, had to string them up and keep fighting.
The magic was gone. Dwayne Stephens, who had hit two big free throws in the final minute of regulation, threw up an air ball from the baseline. Smith, who had been brilliant all night, was stripped of the ball as he drove the lane. After Dennis Scott hit a leaner in the lane to put Tech ahead by one, the Spartans let four seconds run off the clock before calling time. And finally, Ken Redfield wound up with the ball, threw up a long prayer, and it clanged off the rim.
End of season.
End of dream.
“It looked to me like when he released the ball, time was out,” said disappointed Michigan State coach Jud Heathcote of Anderson’s shot. “It was a great basketball game, and we have a great group of kids, but this was a tough loss for us.”
The difference was Anderson. This kid is unbelievable. For most of the night, it was a showdown between him and Steve Smith, one the playground legend from the Big Apple, the other the lanky string bean from Detroit. Smith would worm inside people, bank in a jumper. Anderson would race down court, stop on a shadow, and bingo! Three points. Smith would soar above people for a rebound, swiping those long arms, keeping the ball alive. Anderson would poke at Spartan guards like a stiletto, flicking it loose and streaking away like a thief.
He stole this one at (actually after) the buzzer. Of course, the contrast between these teams was pretty sharp before they ever stepped on the court. The Spartans came in defensive-minded, looking to shut down, close up, put a lid on the opponents. “It’s not that teams don’t play well against us,” Heathcote explained. “We just play better defense than they’re used to.”
Meanwhile, the Yellow Jackets never met a deficit they didn’t like. Their last six victories were come-from-behind jobs, including a 17-point deficit that was erased against LSU. How do they do it? Anderson shoots. Brian Oliver shoots. Scott shoots. Their motto should be “Have guns, never tire.”
And then there were the personalities. Heathcote, the old head-banger, runs a polite, disciplined, well-schooled program where everybody gets some spotlight but nobody walks around with a gold motto around his neck. Tech, by comparison, looks like the cast of “Saturday Night Live.” Led by the antics of blarney-stone Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins, a street-smart guy from the Bronx — the kind of coach who can swoop into New York City and come home with Anderson, the top high school player in the country last year — the Jackets like to call themselves “Lethal Weapon 3.” They clown around. They tease Cremins, they bust his chops. Put it this way: John Salley went to Tech, played for Cremins, and was one of his favorite guys, shtick and all. Does that give you an idea?
About the only thing these teams had in common was winning — and the fact that people still couldn’t believe they were doing it. The Spartans were picked for no better than fifth in most Big Ten previews, yet won the conference and a Top 10 national ranking. Tech was supposed to be in rebuilding year. Yet here were the Yellow Jackets, with a record of 26-6 and no defeats in March, and here were the Spartans, 28-5, who hadn’t lost since Feb. 1. Somebody would have to give.
It turned out to be the Spartans. They had intelligently weathered the Tech shooting threat. They had dominated the inside game, the major weak spot in the Georgia Tech arsenal. They had done everything they were supposed to do. They were just shot down. In the end, like Michigan a weekend earlier, they were shot down by the amazing.
And so they go home, they walk off the Superdome floor dazed. And the tendency is to feel just awful.
Better to forget the final scene Friday. Take these snapshots with you instead. Matt Steigenga, the kid with the funny name, popping clean from the outside. Kirk Manns, who looks like a well-scrubbed Bowery Boy, playing with that bum foot, burying a three-pointer. Smith, who became hero-in-a- hurry, all long arms and legs and elbows, a basketball Gumby with a great shot.
Redfield, the senior, playing with the knowledge that any of these games could be his last as a Spartan, sacrificing what every kid wants, offense, to become a defensive force that in truth, enabled MSU to get this far. And Mike Peplowski, the personification of this blue-collar spirit, all thick muscle and crew cut and unbridled enthusiasm.
And orchestrating them all, Heathcote, Mr. Red In The Face, doing it the way he’s done it for 14 years, hard, fair, clean. If you ever had a doubt about how good a coach this guy is, just consider what he did with this squad. What was it even doing here? All those injuries? All those supposedly better teams in the conference?
Better to remember them that way, happy, victorious. Sure, they’re home for good. Sure the season is over. Even so, no tears here. Only one team wins the whole thing. The others are graded by how hard they tried, how well they performed, and how much fun they brought to their fans and themselves. High marks all around to the men in green. That was some kind of run.