NIT Champions is not something the Indiana Hoosiers ever strived to be, but 1979 was slightly different.
The Hoosiers finished the season undefeated three years before and won it all. That was followed by a 1977 season that found the Hoosiers missing the NCAA Tournament altogether.
The 1978 season would see things start to trend back in the proper direction for the Hoosiers as they once again made the NCAA Tournament but fell short in the Sweet Sixteen by a point to the Villanova Wildcats.
Hopes sprung eternal leading into the 1979 season, but the season would take many wild turns leading to an NIT bid.
Hopes for the 1979 season quickly took a downturn as the Hoosiers would lose the first two games to Pepperdine and Texas A&M in the Sea Wolves classic played in Anchorage, Alaska.
What made this trip even more disturbing was the Hoosiers’ loss of three players because of Marijuana use, so this season looked dead from the outset.
The Hoosiers would lose three of their first five games of the season, with their only wins against Penn State and Moorehead State, not precisely eye-raising wins.
The Hoosiers would win the next six games, including an overtime win against Kentucky.
When Big Ten play started, the Hoosiers looked poised to make another run at a regular season big ten title. Those hopes were dashed quickly as the Hoosiers would lose five of their first six Big Ten games.
The Hoosiers would rebound to win five of their next six games, including a huge overtime win at Ohio State.
Typical of the 1979 season though the Hoosiers quickly came back to earth, losing back-to-back games to Michigan and Michigan State.
Indiana finished the season strong, though, winning four of their last five games to earn an invitation to the NIT.
Indiana would start the road to Madison Square Garden by heading to Lubbock, Texas, to battle Texas Tech. The NIT in Lubbock against the Indiana Hoosiers in Lubbock was a big game for the Red Raiders and their fans. Any worries about the Hoosiers being flat were put to bed early as the Hoosiers blew out the Red Raiders and quieted a raucous home crowd as the Hoosiers dominated for a 78-59 victory.
Next up were the Alcorn State Braves, who would make a couple of NCAA Tournaments over the next few years. The Braves came to play against the Hoosiers at Assembly Hall, but the Hoosiers would survive 73-69 to advance to the NIT Final Four in Madison Square Garden. You would never expect that Alcorn State came into this matchup with Indiana with an undefeated record.
This NIT would become important to the Hoosiers because the Final Four consisted of three Big Ten Teams and Alabama. Ohio State and Purdue would be the other Big Ten teams in the final four.
Surprisingly, Purdue ended the season as Big Ten Co-Champions but did not get invited to the NCAA Tournament. That year the Big Ten had a three-way tie for the regular season championship, but Purdue was just 1-3 against Michigan State and Iowa, the other teams they tied for first with. In 1979 before the tournament expanded, only two teams from the Big Ten could be selected, so Purdue was the odd man out.
That meant that the NIT had three Big Ten teams in the final four, and Michigan State was the eventual National Champion in the NCAA Tournament, not a bad year for the Big Ten!
Indiana would comfortably beat Ohio State in the Final Four, while Purdue would take down Alabama. That meant the old rivals Purdue and Indiana would play in a much-anticipated Championship game.
Indiana rallied behind Butch Carter’s 20-foot jump shot with four seconds remaining to defeat Purdue 53-52 in the National Invitation Tournament final round in front of 14,889 at Madison Square Garden.
Before Indiana’s victory, which improved their season record to 22-12, Alabama defeated Ohio State 96-86 for third-place honors.
Carter’s basket earned him a share of the most-valuable-player honors with teammate Ray Tolbert.
Ironically, Carter – a 6-foot-5-inch senior backcourt man – could have easily been the hero in a game marked by tough defense and coaching strategy. It took 8 minutes and 16 seconds to play out the final 16 seconds, with six timeouts called, four by Indiana.
Purdue was ahead, 52-51, and the Hoosiers had been in a four-corner stall for 3 minutes 25 seconds to try to get the Boilermakers to break away from their zone defense. Carter attempted a pass to Mike Woodson with 1:06 left, but it was intercepted by Mike Scearce.
Carroll Misses on Free Throws. Purdue was held scoreless by the Hoosiers for the final eight minutes of the game.
With Purdue in possession, Carter was thrust into the spotlight when he had to foul 7-1 Purdue center Joe Barry Carroll on a one-and-one situation. Carroll missed his initial shot despite making only two of eight free throws with 4:58 remaining in the game.
After Carroll’s miss, Tolbert, 6-9 center, grabbed the rebound and passed to Woodson, who Arnette Hallman then fouled with 16 seconds remaining – a nonshooting foul.
After three consecutive Indiana timeouts, in which Coach Bobby Knight discussed strategy with his team, Randy Wittman inbounded the ball to Carter. He passed it to Woodson, who in turn gave it back to Carter, who then passed it again to Wittman. Finally, Carter scored over Jerry Sichting’s outstretched hands.
Carter, who scored 12 points on the play, explained: “Turner was supposed to screen for Mike and if he wasn’t covered, then Randy or I should take the shot. Mike wasn’t covered, so that left me with no choice – and so it proved.” Carter noted: “This play was designed with Woodson in mind – that was why I took that shot!”
Before Carter’s game-winning basket, Woodson hit his last Indiana shot with 6:34 remaining. His field goal cut Purdue’s lead to 52-51.
The Boilermakers held the ball for two minutes before Sichting took a shot that missed.
Indiana then entered their stall.
“I had never done something like it before,” Knight admitted. “With a 1-point lead and my gamble working, I told them to hold the ball for what would likely be our final shot – we had three good perimeter shooters at that time – and my gamble paid off.” “We ended up taking advantage of an opportunity and won,” Knight concluded.
Knight has been coaching for 16 seasons, and this was his sixth appearance in the N.I.T., four as coach of the Army.
His first N.I.T. triumph was an emotional one for him; just before being called upon to receive the championship trophy, he ran into the stands and grabbed Mrs Joe Lapchick, wife of former St. John’s coach, by the hand and brought her out into the middle of the floor for celebration. Knight loved older coaches like Lapchick and loved to bring attention to these men.
Knight exclaimed to a standing ovation from the enthusiastic audience. “We have no greater tribute here tonight than to honor Mrs Lapchick,” Knight concluded with an inspiring image of himself standing before them all in celebration.
Later, Knight recalled: “Mrs Lapchick stopped me as I was walking to the bench before the game and gave me a warm embrace and kiss, saying it was for Joe – it brought tears to my eyes.”
After the game, Lee Rose, the Purdue coach, denied his team was in any “zone” when Indiana began its stall.
“We weren’t in a zone,” said Rose, who guided the Boilermakers to a share of the Big Ten Conference title with Michigan State and Iowa and an impressive 27-8 record during his first season as Purdue coach. “It was more like what we call a hands-up zone – when your man moves towards the basket, you go along with him; it’s man-to-man.”
Defense has always been the cornerstone of a Knight-coached team. Still, on this night he seemed to emphasize it even more as they attempted to stop Carroll, the Purdue center who had scored 42 points in the semifinal round against Alabama.
Carroll, who finished with 14 points and 126 for five tournament games, never became an offensive threat in this one. Indiana jammed him in the middle and eventually collapsed on him; Tolbert and Woodson mostly kept Carroll off the ball while taking only four shots in the first half and making two; overall, he went 6 for ten during that span of time.
Knight became the sixth coach in history to win both the NCAA and N.I.T championships, joining Ken Loeffler of LaSalle, Al McGuire from Marquette, Adolph Rupp from Kentucky, Joe B. Hall – then the current Kentucky coach – and Nat Holman from City College.
The 1979 NCAA Championship was a catalyst as the Hoosiers would make the sweet sixteen the next year and in 1981 win the NCAA Championship. 1979 was an up and down mess for the Hoosiers, but in the end the Hoosiers came out on top.
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