EAST LANSING — The miracle came so fast, so crazy, that now, minutes after the victory, no one could recall how it happened. Was it Ken who knocked it from Tony, or Dwayne who knocked it from Steve? Did Mark dive for the ball? Wait. Was Mark even in there? Who knew? Who could keep it straight? It was the madcap final minute of a madcap Big Ten championship and the players were like pinballs bouncing off the rubber — ping! — the ball came loose — ping! — the ball came loose again . . .
“Can you even describe that play?” someone asked Dwayne Stephens, the MSU freshman who somehow wound up with possession and flew to the hoop for the winning lay-up. “Who were all the players who touched the ball before you?”
“I have no idea,” he said, grinning with innocence. “I don’t even know who
I stole it from.”
How could he? It was insanity, a game of hot potato. It was the championship, that basketball. And that’s the way the championship bounces. Right into the hip pocket of the Michigan State Spartans. One minute, they’re trailing by three points, and the next minute the floor is swarmed by green and white fans, as the players leap the scorers table, like the Beatles fleeing a concert.
Michigan State wins the Big Ten? They knock off Purdue in the season finale, 72-70? They’re the No. 1 Southeast seed in the NCAA tournament? Can you believe this? Well. Can you believe a team that no one picked for the top half of its conference has won 10 straight and captured the flag outright? Can you believe an injured Kirk Manns, who wasn’t supposed to play Sunday, sank a critical basket in the final minute?
Better yet. Can you believe that finish? If you can, then you can believe anything. Here were the Spartans in a shadow box war against Purdue, a team that, like MSU, was all defense and muscle and soft-touch outside shooting. Neither school was picked above “stinky” in the preseason polls last October. But here they were in March, battling for the Big Ten title. And the Spartans trailed 70-69 with 35 seconds left and Purdue holding the basketball.
Logic says you foul and take your chances. Don’t let them run the clock down. But logic could not be heard. Not in this building. The Breslin Center was a living roar with 15,138 nutty fans, many of whom weren’t around 12 years ago, when their school last captured a men’s basketball title.
And so Purdue’s Ryan Berning threw the ball inbounds, his teammate Tony Jones caught it, and then — whooeee! — Ken Redfield slapped it away, Purdue’s Steve Scheffler picked it up, three Spartans knocked it away, Jones caught it, Stephens poked it from him and . . .
Aw, shoot. Let someone else describe it.
“It was like ‘Get it . . . No! . . . Get it . . . No! . . . Get it . . . we got it . . . aw YES!” hollered a joyous Mike Peplowski, the MSU center,
“YES! . . . YES!”
That was pretty clear, wasn’t it?
Anyhow, the Spartans understood. They began leaping well before the final buzzer sounded. Steve Smith was hugging Mark Montgomery. Redfield was all over Stephens. Peplowski was airborne like a Frigidaire with legs. Why not? You weren’t going to beat this karma. Not this day. Never mind that Jones felt he was mauled. (“Redfield tried to foul me intentionally and the ref didn’t call it!”) Never mind that Purdue coach Gene Keady would echo the sentiment.
(“It’s an injustice! You all know what I’m talking about. We should have won this game.”) Never mind that Michigan State had blown an early 12- point lead and fallen behind by as much as eight.
Never mind all that. The Spartans, who, even if they lost, would have finished in a first-place tie with Purdue, wanted the title outright. “The T-shirts and hats and everything they print up,” explained Redfield, “we didn’t want them reading ‘cochampions.’ “
And now they won’t. Redfield, a senior, made sure of it. Playing in his last game at East Lansing — and playing for the first time here in front of his mother, who had come up for the occasion — the 6-foot-7 forward not only hit eight of his 10 shots for 16 points, but made the initial swipe at Jones that freed the ball for the magnificent melee that followed.
And it was Redfield who, after Stephens picked up the ball, cleared a path to the hoop like an offensive tackle leading the fullback. Stephens kept looking to pass him the ball — after all, a freshman isn’t supposed to win a big game like this, is he? — but Redfield kept backing up the hardwood, finding Schefler and holding him at bay, until Stephens was so alone he had no choice but to lay it in, two-handed, like a surgeon putting the heart back inside the chest.
“If I had missed that shot,” Stephens said, shaking his head, “I’d still be crying right now.”
He didn’t. And nobody’s crying.
Except maybe Purdue.
That’s the way the championship bounces.
But let’s face it. Even Purdue must admit, this is too good a story to let die. The Spartans? Winning the conference? Wasn’t this a Wolverine state? Especially after U-M captured the national championship last April, while Spartan fans stayed home and punched the TV set?
What a difference a year makes. This morning, MSU is the No. 1 seed in the Southeast, with an appointment against Murray State on Thursday in the opening round of the tournament. And Jud Heathcote, who — although some people have forgotten — won a national championship long before Steve Fisher, is headed back to the land of the possible.
These are the new memories he’s taking in his suitcase: Manns, whose stress fracture kept him out of action the last three games, burying a three-pointer to put State ahead Sunday; Smith, who has been brilliant in Manns’ absence, gathering 22 points, the last of which a free throw that helped ice the win with three seconds left; a spanking new arena filled with loving fans, who honored their coach after the game with a throaty chorus of
“JUD!-JUD!-JUD! . . . “
And of course, that miracle play, which, naturally, the coach can describe better than anybody:
“They brought it in,” Heathcote explained, “then we knocked it loose. Then they knocked it loose. Then we got it back and we scored, right?”
Exactly. That’s the way the championship bounces. On we go.