This Day in March Madness History: Magic Johnson and Larry Bird’s first encounter

This Day in March Madness History

March 26, 1979
Michigan State vs. Indiana State

  • The Setup
    If someone had suggested this national championship match-up even two years prior, they would have been laughed at. Indiana State was hardly removed from their DII days, making their first ever NCAA Tournament appearance in 1979. Meanwhile, Michigan State had only returned to relevance a year prior, when the Spartans made it to the Elite Eight. Before that run, Michigan State hadn’t made the tournament since 1959. However, in 1979, both teams were powerhouses, each led by a star that would become an NBA legend. Indiana State got a one-seed in the tournament, led by the exploits of Larry Bird, who averaged 28.6 points per game that season. Heading into the title game, the Sycamores had a 33-0 record, having survived consecutive two-point games to squeak into the final round.
    Meanwhile, Michigan State had been a little less dominant at 25-6, but they had their own stud at the helm in Magic Johnson, averaging 17.1 points per game. He actually was only second on the team in scoring to Greg Kelser. The Spartans had actually had it far easier than the Sycamores, not winning a single game by less than twelve points. That game was an upset of #1 Notre Dame, 80-68. In the Final Four, they faced a huge underdog in Penn, a nine-seed, and dismantled them by 34 points. 
  • How it went down
    Michigan State knew the game would come down to whether they could stop Larry Bird, especially in the paint. The Spartans flocked to Bird when he got the ball, and they crowded his passing lanes, limiting him to just 7 of 21 shooting, and only two assists. The Spartans went up 37-28 at the half. Johnson made one exceptional play late in the half, driving to the baseline, faking out Bird with a pump-fake pass, and laying the ball in for two points. The Sycamores had rallied several times throughout the year, and they had recent experience in close games, but they started off the second half slow. Michigan State rattled off seven straight points and led 44-28 just minutes into the second half.
    Out of all their comebacks, Bird’s squad had never trailed by more than eleven points, and the 16-point deficit proved too much a struggle to overcome. Michigan State continued to fluster the mid-major star with a spectacular zone defense that minimized his efficiency and playmaking ability. Bird scratched out 19 points, and Carl Nicks chipped away for 17, but that was as good as it got for Indiana State, which was doomed by poor free throw shooting. The Sycamores were 10-22 from the charity stripe, including 5-17 from players not named Larry Bird. Michigan State battled through their own foul trouble and avoided any ejections, closing out the Sycamores, 75-64. 
  • The Aftermath
    The season was done after that, but the future of these programs went in very different directions. Having won the title in just their fourth NCAA Tournament appearance, the Spartans eventually became a March regular, although it took a while. They missed the next five tournaments, and they struggled to establish a pedigree, but in 1995, Michigan State hired Tom Izzo as head coach. The Spartans won a title in 2000, and they’ve qualified for 23 straight NCAA Tournaments.
    Meanwhile, Indiana State has made just three tournament appearances since Larry Bird left the team, and they’ve won just one contest in that time. Ironically, the next tournament they qualified for, it was in 2000, when the Spartans won their next championship. They last played in the NCAA Tournament in 2011. 
  • NBA Notables (Teams they played 100+ games for)
    Michigan State – Magic Johnson (Lakers), Greg Kelser (SuperSonics), Jay Vincent (Mavericks)
    Indiana State – Larry Bird (Celtics), Carl Nicks (Jazz)

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