The night IU was nearly imperfect

From his seat in Row 30 on the IU end of Assembly Hall, Dave Heisler had a perfect view of the moment that saved Hoosier basketball history.

It was Feb. 7, 1976, in a game sometimes overlooked in the celebration of IU’s perfect season and NCAA title. If you were there like Heisler, though, you will never forget.

Michigan was in town, a team that might have won the tournament but for the Hoosiers. Visiting Indiana had topped the Wolverines 80-74 a month before. This time, a Michigan team led by future NBA Draft picks Ricky Green and Phil Hubbard seemed to have the upper hand.

The Wolverines jumped out to a 39-29 halftime lead and still led in the final minute. IU’s perfect season was in peril.

“Toward the end of the game there was a nervous energy in the building, with IU behind” recalled Heisler, now a retired engineer who lives in Greenwood. “This could not be happening to the Hoosiers, not in Assembly Hall.”

Jerry Rinehart shared that feeling. A Columbus dentist today, Rinehart, too, was in Assembly Hall that day, although high in the balcony.

I was there, as well, sharing the trepidation from my seat in the end bleachers next to the band.

Indiana was on the ropes. Scott May and Kent Benson would combine for 48 points, but the rest of starters were just of 2 of 22 from the field.

Still, there was a chance. Trailing by four with 22 seconds remaining, Quinn Buckner, who had misfired all game, raced the ball down court and hit a quick jumper to cut the lead to two.

Unable to steal the inbounds pass, the Hoosiers then fouled Michigan guard Steve Grote.

It’s important to understand a thing or two about Grote. He was a 72 percent free-throw shooter and so revered in Michigan basketball lore for his toughness that the program’s hustle award still is named after him. In other words, he is exactly the guy you want at the free-throw stripe with the game on the line.

You guessed it. Grote missed the front end of a one-and-one. IU corralled the rebound.

What happened next was, in the words of an Ann Arbor newspaper the next day, “a heart shredder.”

A closely guarded Buckner was unable to get a clean passing lane or look at the basket. Desperation closing in, he launched an errant heave from the top of the key that was far to the right of the bucket with five ticks left. Jimmy Crews, looking much like a volleyball player with a great dig, dove and batted the ball upward toward the basket. From there, Benson guided Crews’ redirection with one hand into the basket as time expired.

Hoosier pandemonium.

“The echo of the fan noise is what I remember most,” Dr. Rinehart recalled of his balcony perch. “It looked good from my view.”

My heart and eyes both said it counted from my seat under the basket, where a dorm mate ripped the sleeve off my shirt in the delight that ensued.

Officials were left to make a final judgment on the play, determining that Benson’s basket came on a controlled shot — which meant that the ball only had to be in the air at the buzzer, rather than through the goal, as the rule required on a tip.

Before the call, Michigan coach Johnny Orr said he asked the clock operator if he thought it was good. “It’s damn good,” was the reply.

The officials agreed. Basket good. Tie game. Overtime.

A heave, a dig and a tip that was ruled a shot just saved the season.

With Wayne Radford coming off the bench to score 16, IU went on to win 72-67.

“The place was really rockin’,” said Heisler, who had resisted the urge to sell his $4 ticket for $70 before the game. “The team of destiny was still alive, somehow.”

Indeed, but destiny didn’t happen without a little luck.

There were other close calls — Benson’s tip-in at Kentucky sent that game to overtime, where it took two extra periods before IU prevailed; IU blew a 14-point lead against Notre Dame before winning by three; the Hoosiers trailed at halftime to Illinois, Purdue and Minnesota twice before storming back; Alabama led in the NCAA tourney with two minutes remaining, only to have Indiana take charge down the stretch.

Even the championship game — a third game against Michigan — was not nearly as easy as the 86-68 final score suggests. An inadvertent elbow to the head sent guard Bobby Wilkerson to the sidelines in the first half, and the rest of the Hoosiers looked just as groggy. IU trailed by six at the break. The game was tied halfway through the final half before May simply took over.

In the 40 years since, many have tried to match the Hoosiers’ remarkable undefeated season. About 14,000 Division I teams have started a season since with a perfect record. All have failed to finish that way, like the 1975-76 Hoosiers. Indeed, it won’t happen this season, either.

This Sunday, recall the anniversary of that game that made it all possible, even when the Hoosiers looked beat.

A heave, a dig and a tip that was called a shot. Sometimes perfection takes a little luck.

Bob Johnson is a correspondent for the Daily Journal in Johnson County, a sister paper of The Tribune. Send comments to [email protected].