Keith Smart was benched. Benched in the NCAA championship game. He was forced to endure one of sports' most embarrassing moments -- being pulled from a game in front of millions of people. His family saw it. His friends. Everyone.
Smart had made another bad decision on the court, made another bad pass. Bobby Knight, the explosive and hot-tempered Indiana University basketball coach, had already warned Smart once about making another mistake. He told him one more mistake and he's gone. Didn't matter that it was the NCAA championship.
He wasn't kidding. One bad pass later, Knight leaped up from the bench yelling, glaring at Smart. Knight called time out and pointed to Smart, who dragged himself off the floor.
Four and half grueling minutes passed as Smart sat on the bench, thinking about his error in judgement, his nervous play. "I had to get my head together," he would later say.
Knight, however, knew that to win this NCAA championship, a game which featured the intriguing subplots of Knight, Indiana's gunslinging three-point marksmen Steve Alford and the fundamentally sound Hoosiers vs. a Syracuse team packed with future NBA players Derrick Coleman, Sherman Douglas and Rony Seikaly, he will need Smart.
Smart was inserted back into the game … and he was brilliant, scoring basket after basket. With Alford locked up and stifled in the second half by Syracuse's defense, Smart took control, scoring 17 of his 21 points in the final half, including 12 of Indiana's last 16 points, and six in a row one point -- a dazzling series that began with a driving reverse layup that tied the game at 70-70, with 1:21 left. He was the most electrifying player on the court as the clock wound down ...
Twenty-eight seconds remain. Indiana brings the ball upcourt, slowly, trailing 73-72. It's March 30, 1987. Knight's primary option is to have Alford shoot, but Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim is determined to keep the ball out of Alford's hands and force any other Hooiser to shoot.
Syracuse's Douglas and Howard Triche have done a masterful job on Alford in the second half in a box and one, preventing Alford from getting the ball ever since an explosive first half, when Alford struck for seven 3-pointers in the first 29 minutes. As the final possession unfolds, Alford, who had but two points in the second half, is once again unable to get loose with Douglas clinging to him.
With Alford covered, Indiana swings the ball to the left side to Smart, who penetrates briefly and then kicks the ball over to forward Daryl Thomas, whose job on the play is to set a screen for Alford. But since Alford is covered, Thomas spins around and prepares to shoot. But when he turns, he finds himself face to face with Coleman. Thomas fakes a shot. Coleman doesn't budge. Thomas has no choice but to pass.
Out of the corner of his eye, Thomas sees Smart flare out on the baseline in the corner -- uncovered. Syracuse's Triche had turned his head, ever so slightly, to follow Smart's entry pass to Thomas, enabling Smart to drift deeper into the corner -- all alone. As Triche hustles back, Thomas flips the pass over to Smart. The pass beats Triche and in one motion Smart catches the ball, eyeballs the rim, never looks at the clock and lets the ball fly with a picture perfect arch.
"The last option was for me to create my own shot," Smart would say later. "We were always taught, after you pass, don't stand. Move to another spot."
Four seconds remain as Smart's shot flies through the air. Every eye in the stadium, all the millions of eyes watching the game on TV, follow the ball as it descends toward the net. The ball swishes through, perfectly and beautifully. Indiana 74, Syracuse 73.
Syracuse players are so stunned, they're motionless, seemingly unable to call a timeout. Triche insists he had signaled timeout immediately after Smart's shot danced through the net. "But the ref didn't see it," he would say. "There were three seconds left when we called it. But two more ticks went off before they gave it to us."
The clock doesn't stop until it hits one second. The timeout is finally given. After the teams break their respective huddles, Knight calls a timeout, too, to make sure his defense is set. The ball is inbounded by Coleman, who heaves a pass three-quarters of the way down the court. But there is Smart again, leaping and intercepting the pass. He clutches the ball, like a baby, and as time expires he heaves the ball to the heavens.
"I think about it every day," Smart says today. "I'm blessed to have been in that position." He is also blessed to be in the proper frame of mind: in one of those surreal zones. "I didn't hear a thing when I shot the ball; I didn't even think about the moment, that it was the NCAA championship. I didn't feel anything. A lot of players may think, 'Oh, there's so much pressure.' But I wasn't thinking about that. I felt like I was all alone, like there was no one else on the court and nobody in the stands."