‘It still stings to this day’: Twenty-six years after narrowly losing title game to Indiana, Syracuse has shot at redemption in NCAA Tourney
When Keith Smart drained a game-winning 16-footer from the corner in the waning seconds of the 1987 national championship game, the memory was destined to stay with members of both teams forever.
For some on Syracuse, it was something that would take years to get over, if at all. But for the Indiana Hoosiers, it marked a defining moment they would cherish to this day.
“Growing up, it was just something you watched on TV,” said Jeff Oliphant, an Indiana guard who didn’t play in the title game. “Seeing them go undefeated in 1976 and then win again in 1981, I wanted to be a part of something like that. We didn’t have all the NBA guys like the ‘Cuse team, but we had good players, and Keith made great plays.”
Twenty-six years later, Syracuse and Indiana will meet again in the NCAA Tournament, this time in a Sweet 16 matchup on Thursday at 9:45 p.m. in Washington, D.C. In 1987, the No. 1-seed Hoosiers beat the No. 2-seed Orangemen 74-73, with Bob Knight coaching against Jim Boeheim. This time, Indiana remains No. 1, but is coached by Tom Crean. Syracuse is now a No. 4, and Boeheim remains.
Each team has reached one title game since. Indiana fell to Maryland in 2002, and Syracuse lost to Kentucky in 1996, but later defeated Kansas in 2003.
On the opposite side of Oliphant’s joy was the pain felt by Syracuse guard Stephen Thompson, who played 17 minutes and didn’t score while committing three turnovers. Now the head basketball coach at Cal State-Los Angeles, Thompson said playing in the championship game was everything he dreamed as a kid when he thought about college.
Still, Thompson doesn’t know if he has completely recovered from the memory of seeing Smart’s heavily contested shot sail into the basket.
“It still stings to this day,” Thompson said. “Every time the memories are brought up, it’s a stinging feel. So close, a great opportunity. As that moment happened, you think you’ll get back, but we never got back to the national championship. A lot of success, but we never got back.”
Worsening the result for Thompson and SU was the way the game unfolded. After Indiana led by a point at halftime, Syracuse jumped out to a 52-44 lead with 13:09 remaining. The Hoosiers cut into the lead, pulling within 73-72 with 30 seconds to play. Then, Derrick Coleman faced a one-and-one with a chance to give Syracuse a cushion.
Coleman’s first foul shot hit the front of the rim, and Indiana held the ball for more than 20 seconds before Smart’s iconic basket gave Indiana the lead. Back then, the clock didn’t stop upon a made basket in the final seconds, and time went down to one second before Boeheim called a timeout.
“We were down by eight, thinking that things weren’t going that well,” former IU guard Steve Eyl said. “Keith played well, but the rest of us didn’t have as great of a game. The game was basically over, and Syracuse was winning. Then Keith’s shot goes in, and they were stunned.”
Although Eyl regards the championship game as the pinnacle of the season, he recalled Indiana’s national semifinal win over UNLV as his team’s greatest performance. Jerry Tarkanian’s Runnin’ Rebels rolled through the season with a 37-1 record before the Final Four matchup, when the Hoosiers walked away with a 97-93 victory.
Eyl had one point in 13 minutes against Syracuse, recalling he was substituted in and out of the game in the final minutes.
“The game before, against UNLV, we all played well,” Eyl said. “But against Syracuse, even though it was the finals, we came out flatter than we had hoped.”
In the eyes of Post-Standard columnist Bud Poliquin, who covered the game for the paper, the key to Indiana’s success was the 3-point shooting ability of star guard Steve Alford, who went 7-for-10 from beyond the arc in a 23-point effort.
Describing Alford as the “Gerry McNamara of his time,” Poliquin found irony in Knight’s remarks to the media before the game. Knight said he hoped the 3-point line would soon find its way into the scrap heap, comparing it to the Ford Edsel, an over-hyped, unpopular automobile that ceased production soon after launch.
Then, Alford’s shooting paved the way for a national championship.
“Without the 3-point basket, SU wins,” Poliquin said. “And it was the weapon that Bobby Knight hated with all his heart. He said his biggest hope was that someday we view the founder of the 3-point basket the way we view the inventor of the Edsel.”
Despite the lingering sting, former SU guard Thompson said he was able to move on from the loss after a preseason National Invitation Tournament game two seasons later, when the Orange faced Indiana at Madison Square Garden. Thompson helped make sure Syracuse would earn slight redemption from 1987, going 11-for-12 from the field in a 102-78 SU win.
Thompson also said any hard feelings toward Smart were neutralized when the two played together professionally for the Continental Basketball Association’s Rapid City Thrillers.
“I didn’t want to have to sit there for a whole season, looking at this guy,” Thompson said. “But he’s a very nice guy. After getting to know him then, it couldn’t have happened to a nicer person.”
Thompson continues to follow Syracuse basketball and support the team, but he said the championship game hadn’t even crossed his mind when he saw the Syracuse-Indiana matchup slated for Thursday.
But Eyl immediately had flashbacks when he saw this week’s Sweet 16 draw. He said he’ll be watching closely Thursday night, fingers crossed for Indiana, along with a warm feeling for his championship team and one of college basketball’s all-time great moments.
“Obviously, none of the players and coaches now will care about a game that took place 26 years ago,” Eyl said. “But people like me and announcers, our memories will go back to that game in 1987. When you see those two names — Indiana and Syracuse — tied together, anyone with nostalgia for Indiana basketball will think about that game.”
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