This Date in Hoosier History: Indiana Caps Off Dominant Finish to 1981 Season With National Title

March 30, 1981 — Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

It was the team that looked like it couldn’t get there, and the game that looked like it wouldn’t happen.

Despite a preseason top five ranking, Indiana finished their nonconference schedule with a 7-5 record including a loss to Texas Rio Grande Valley in late December that knocked them completely out of the national rankings.

Also included in the early season loss column was a 65-56 defeat at the hands of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, N.C., on Dec. 20.

But Indiana would rally to win 11 of their last 13 Big Ten games, finish 14-4 in conference play and win the Big Ten outright.

In late February something clicked with this team and they went from good to dominant.

The Hoosiers starting beating nearly everyone they played by double figures.  That carried all the way through to the national title game against North Carolina.  IU won their four NCAA tournament games leading up to the championship by an average margin of 25 points.

But just hours before tip-off, it didn’t look like a game would be played.

Tragedy struck the country in Washington D.C. on Monday morning as President Ronald Reagan was shot outside of the Washington Hilton Hotel.

Indiana head coach Bob Knight, North Carolina’s Dean Smith, and an NCAA official met inside the Spectrum in Philadelphia to discuss whether or not to play the game.  Smith suggested that the teams be declared co-champions.  Ultimately the NCAA tournament committee decided less than an hour before the scheduled tip-off that the game would go on.

Credit – Rich Clarkson / SI

IU struggled out of the gate in front of 18,276 at the Spectrum.  The Hoosiers hit only 37.9 percent of its field goal attempts in the first 20 minutes and was down by 8 points midway through the first half.  Isiah Thomas made only one of seven shots in the first half.

Indiana led, 27-26, at intermission, but only because Randy Wittman hit a jumper from the left corner at the buzzer.

Thomas jump started IU in the second half with two early steals that he converted into baskets as part of a 12-4 run.  Smith would remark after the game that those steals were the turning point.

The Hoosiers (23-9) would pull away for the 63-50 victory.

After Knight won his second national title game in Philadelphia he remarked ”My first thought would be, when will the N.C.A.A. Basketball Tournament Committee come back to Philadelphia?”

Isiah Thomas led the way for IU with 23 points, 5 assists and 4 steals.  Randy Wittman and Landon Turner were also in double figures with 16 and 12 points, respectively.  Ray Tolbert led IU with 11 rebounds, while Jim Thomas had a team leading 8 assists.

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