Hoosiers gave all, fell short

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 5, 2002

Sports Columnist

The Indiana Hoosiers appeared for awhile to be the Cinderella story of the year – the coach who can’t shake the shadow of his former boss which still looms large in Bloomington, the team which aspired to be the first No. 5 seed ever to win the NCAA championship, players who won as much on heart, grit and determination as on talent, who often overcame teams which outsized, out-jumped and outran them.

It had all the makings of a great story. I had been thinking all week about writing the final chapter to the underdogs completing their dream run through the brackets. It was to be the perfect happy ending to coach Mike Davis’ often stormy second season as the Hoosiers’ boss.

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One problem. The Maryland Terrapins didn’t read the script.

Justifying their No. 1 seed, and taking advantage of uncharacteristic Indiana miscues, the Terps overpowered Indiana 64-52 to earn their first NCAA crown. Though they had their own share of early-game jitters and numerous ill-advised passes to contend with, they seemed to have the poise and raw ability to fight through it. Indiana did not.

It started out to be one of the ugliest championship games in recent memory, with both teams telegraphing and misfiring passes, as well as laying bricks on point-blank shots. The only thing that kept it exciting was watching Maryland’s Juan Dixon and Indiana’s Tom Coverdale conduct a pocket-picking contest for the first several minutes.

Little by little, both teams began to settle into their games, with Maryland’s Lonny Baxter asserting himself inside and Indiana’s shooters snapping the nets with open looks from the 3-point line. Coverdale continued with one of the great, gutty performances we’ve seen in a while, as he showed little affect from the high ankle sprain he suffered in their earlier game with Kent State. And Juan Dixon lived up to his billing as he consistently came up with the big play when his Terps needed it most. A big steal here, a crucial jumper there, he ended up with 18 points.

It was one of those games that, unless you had a personal interest in one team or the other, was hard to be disappointed with either team taking the trophy.

By all accounts, Maryland’s Gary Williams and Indiana’s Mike Davis are both total class acts who deserved to be atop the college basketball world Monday night. Both seemed genuinely honored and thankful to be where they were and sincerely impressed with the effort of their opponents.

The individual players represented their respective schools with class and determination that surely makes their coaches and fans proud. In these days of highlight reel dunks, followed by fist-pumping and stare-downs, it’s refreshing to see teams sacrificing the "me" in favor of the "we". As long as diving after loose balls is still applauded and there are still players willing to make all the plays that don’t show up in the scorebook, college basketball will still be more fun to watch than the NBA any day.

Maryland’s Byron Mouton is just such a player. Any time someone had to dive out-of-bounds to save a loose ball for his team, or had to out-fight a taller man for a rebound, or get just enough finger on the ball to keep it in play for a teammate, you could just assume it was Mouton. I know teammate Dixon was named Player of the Game because of his points, but without Mouton, they likely don’t win the game.

It was fun watching Indiana’s run while it lasted, but in the end it seemed the Terps were just, physically, too strong to overcome. Indiana will likely be back, as they reportedly have a strong recruiting class coming in, along with those who will return from this year’s team. That may or may not include forward/center Jared Jeffries, who some say will leave early for the pros. If he returns, the Hoosiers just may be back to complete their Cinderella tale next year.

One final thing I noticed about Mike Davis and his Hoosiers. As the game concluded, the disappointment was obvious, but I didn’t really see any tears. If the players follow suit with their coach’s attitude, they felt blessed to come as far as they had, and win or lose, they gave it all they had and went farther than anyone said they could.

I was told by someone who should know that Mike Davis, who is not shy about his religious beliefs, never schedules practice on Sundays because it would interfere with attending church. Maybe it just comes down to the realization that there are things more important than a basketball game. With that perspective in mind, coming up short on the scoreboard isn’t the end of the world anyway.