By Ron Griffitts
In one of the most well-known and historic NCAA finals on March 26, 1979 at the Jon M. Huntsman Center, Salt Lake City, Utah, the Michigan State Spartans (25-6) met the Indiana State Sycamores (33-0) in the NCAA championship game.
Indiana State was coached by Bill Hodges and had finished first in the final AP poll. They were led by Larry Bird (28.6 ppg, 14.9 rpg, 5.5 apg) and Carl Nicks (19.3 ppg, 5.0 apg) and defeated Virginia Tech 86-69, Oklahoma 93-72, Arkansas 73-71 and DePaul 76-74 in the semifinals of the NCAA tournament to get to the final.
DePaul was coached by Ray Meyer who appeared in his first NCAA Final Four in the modern era as his DePaul team had appeared in the 1943 Final Four but there were only eight teams in the tournament that year. Those were the only two Final Four appearances of his 42 year college coaching career.
The Spartans, ranked number three in the final AP poll, were coached by Jud Heathcote and led by Magic Johnson (17.1 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 8.4 apg), Greg Keiser (18.8 ppg, 8.7 rpg) and Jay Vincent (12.7 ppg, 5.2 rpg,) and had gotten past Lamar 95-64, LSU 87-71, Notre Dame 80-68 and Penn 101-67 in the NCAA semifinals.
Michigan State had had an easier time in the tournament as they played a tougher schedule in the Big Ten Conference than the Sycamores who played in the Missouri Valley Conference.
Michigan State took control of the game in the first half and led 37-28 at halftime. Indiana State made a valiant comeback try as they were only outscored 38-36 in the second half but the Spartans used a zone defense effectively and hung on and won 75-64.
They were led by sophomore point guard Magic Johnson who scored 24 points on 8 of 15 from the field and 8 of 10 from the free throw line as well as 7 rebounds and 5 assists. Greg Keiser added 19 points and 9 assists and Terry Donnelly chipped in for 15 points making five for five from the field.
The Sycamores were led by AP Player of the Year, Larry Bird who had 19 points on 7 of 21 from the field and 5 of 8 from the free throw line and pulled down 13 rebounds while playing all forty minutes.
Carl Nicks added 17 points on 7 of 14 from the field but Indiana needed a big scoring game out of Bird and Michigan State was able to prevent that from happening.
Michigan State made 26 of 43 field goal attempts for a 60.5% and 23 of 33 from the free throw line for 69.7% while the Sycamores made 27 of 64 from the field for 42.2% and 10 of 22 from the free throw line for 45.5%. Michigan State’s 13 more free throws made the difference in the game.
This was Michigan State’s first NCAA title and they won again in 2000 while the 1979 final was Indiana State’s only NCAA final appearance.
Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were joined on the all-tournament team by Mark Aguire of DePaul who would also go on to play in the NBA.
For Bird and Magic, it was the start of a long rivalry as Magic joined the Los Angeles Lakers and Bird joined the Boston Celtics in the NBA and they played against each other three times in the NBA finals.
Statistics for this article were from sports-reference.com, YouTube.com and NCAA.com.