The first four days of the NCAA Tournament in 1981 were marked by a sequence of upsets and buzzer-beaters that was then unprecedented. But by the time the 1981 Final Four rolled around, the powers-that-be had emerged. Indiana, North Carolina, Virginia and LSU were all high seeds that won regionals. Let’s look back on the road all four teams took to Philadelphia.
After their unbeaten national championship run of 1976, Bob Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers slipped back and missed the NCAA Tournament two of the next three years. The road back to the national elite started in 1980 when they won the Big Ten before a Sweet 16 loss to archrival Purdue left a bad taste.
There was still as much talent as Knight ever had on hand, and it started with All-American sophomore guard Isiah Thomas, who averaged 17 ppg, was a terrific floor leader and would go on to be one of the great NBA point guards of all-time with the Detroit Pistons.
Thomas was supported by two-guard Randy Wittman, another future NBA player. Ray Tolbert averaged 12 rebounds a game. Another forward, Landon Turner might have gone to the pros as well, but the aggressive rebounding forward had his career tragically cut short in the summer following the 1981 season when a car accident left him paralyzed from the waist down.
This group won a second straight Big Ten title and was seeded #3 in the Mideast Regional. After a first-round bye in a tournament field that was then 48 teams, Indiana crushed Maryland 99-64. Tolbert and Turner dominated inside, combining for 46 points on 19/26 shooting.
Meanwhile the rest of the favorites in the Mideast (the forerunner of today’s South Regional) were dropping like flies. DePaul, the #1 team in the country, was stunned by St. Joe’s. Kentucky, the two-seed and potential Sweet 16 opponent for Indiana, lost to Alabama-Birmingham. And fourth-seeded Wake Forest lost to Boston College.
As if that hadn’t opened up Indiana’s path to the Final Four sufficiently, the regionals would be held on their homecourt in Bloomington.
Indiana beat UAB 87-72, although this was a talented Blazer team. They were coached by Gene Bartow, who had guided UCLA to the Final Four in 1976 before tiring of the pressure that came with succeeding John Wooden. UAB also had a good guard in Oliver Robinson, and this team made the final eight one year later.
In this tournament, UAB hung with IU for a half, trailing 42-37 before the Hoosier backcourt took over. Isiah and Wittman combined for 47 points to take over the second half. Indiana then got one more break when St. Joe’s upset Boston College 42-41. It probably wasn’t going to matter in any case, but with a good inside-out combo of Jay Murphy and John Bagley, the Eagles would have had a puncher’s chance against the Hoosiers.
The same couldn’t be said for St. Joe’s. Indiana dominated defensively and led 32-16 at the half. They held St. Joe’s to 33 percent shooting for the game and coasted in 78-46. Thomas finished with 12 assists and was named Most Outstanding Player of the regional.
Dean Smith had already made five Final Fours with North Carolina when the 1981 season began. The most recent was 1977, when his team reached the championship game before losing. But Smith still didn’t have a ring and his team suffered early exits each of the previous three years.
What they did have in 1981 was a lot of talent. The frontline had future NBA standouts in Sam Perkins and James Worthy, and they weren’t even the best players in this particular year. That honor went to forward Al Wood. Collectively, this Big Three of the frontcourt combined to average 47 ppg.
North Carolina finished second in the ACC and grabbed the #2 seed in the West Regional. They beat Pitt 74-57, getting a combined 56 points from the Big Three on 21/32 shooting to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time since ’77.
UNC was now the favorite in the region after #1 seed Oregon State had been upset by Kansas State in the second round. Utah and Illinois had held serve as favorites to join the Tar Heels in Salt Lake City.
North Carolina drew Utah in the round of 16, and the Utes weren’t to be overlooked. They were playing in their home state and they had Tom Chambers, soon to be one of the most potent scoring forwards in the NBA. But the Tar Heels got 45 points from the Big Three and reserve Matt Doherty stepped up with 12 more to lead a 61-56 win.
Kansas State edged Illinois 57-52 in a game where K-State’s Rolando Blackman squared off with Illinois’ Derek Harper—both players would spend several years as teammates on the Dallas Mavericks. Blackman, who had hit the shot the beat Oregon State with two seconds left, was one of the stories of the tournament.
North Carolina had its hands full with Blackman in the regional final, as he went for 21 points/10 rebounds, but UNC had too much. Wood had a 21/17 game and earned regional MOP honors. Doherty, a future starter for this program and much later its head coach, continued his strong play, with 16 points. The Tar Heels were up thirteen by halftime and coasted to Smith’s sixth Final Four with an 82-68 win.
The Virginia basketball program wasn’t at all on the map when Terry Holland became head coach in 1975, having never reached the NCAA Tournament. Holland built the program, reached the Big Dance in 1976 and a few years later he landed the biggest fish—7’4” center Ralph Sampson.
In 1980, Sampson’s freshman year, UVA won the NIT. And in 1981, they finally had a big year. They won their first 23 games before a last-second loss to Notre Dame in a road-neutral game at Chicago. With Ralph averaging 18 points/12 rebounds/3 blocks per game and supported by forwards and co-captains Jeff Lamp and Lee Raker, Virginia won the ACC title and were the #1 seed in the East Regional.
Virginia was not impressive in beating Villanova 54-50, but they survived and advanced to Atlanta for the regionals. Their opponent would be a good Tennessee team. The Vols were the 4-seed and guard Dale Ellis had a productive NBA career ahead of him.
Sampson struggled, shooting 4-for-13, but Lamp stepped up with a big game and hit 18 points. Virginia took over in the second half and won 62-48. They were one game from the Final Four and whomever the opponent would be, they would offer some sort of revenge angle.
BYU was the 6-seed and guard Danny Ainge had beaten out Sampson for national Player of the Year honors. The Cougars were playing…Notre Dame. The Irish win over the Cavs had been one of the regular season’s most memorable moments. BYU would be the survivor—trailing 50-49, Ainge delivered an iconic NCAA moment, driving coast-to-coast for the winning layup.
Virginia trailed the regional final at halftime, 31-28, but Sampson was playing well. He finished with 22 points/12 rebounds. And now it was Ainge’s turn to struggle to a 4-for-13 shooting day. Lamp scored 17 points and grabbed seven rebounds of his own. The Cavs took over the second half and won going away, 74-60.
Lamp won regional MVP and with Sampson in tow, Virginia was going to Philadelphia as a popular choice to bring home a national championship.
LSU’s only national recognition as a basketball school came when Pete Maravich graced the floor, and even that was about individual success. The Tigers had otherwise not made the NCAA Tournament since the early 1950s when Dale Brown arrived in Baton Rouge in 1976. By 1979, Dale had the team in the Sweet 16. In 1980, they reached the round of eight. There was one more step to take.
The Tigers had a well-balanced team. In the backcourt, Ethan Martin was the playmaker while Howard Carter led all scorers with 16 ppg. The frontcourt had athletes and rebounders in Durand “Rudy” Macklin and Leonard Mitchell. LSU won the SEC title over Kentucky and got the top seed in the Midwest, the second straight year the Tigers were seeded on the 1-line.
Macklin scored 31 points while Carter knocked down 26 as LSU rolled Lamar, 100-78 to advance into the regionals at Houston. They were only favorite to survive opening weekend, but as 5-seeds go, Arkansas was as tough as it got.
Eddie Sutton had led the Razorback program to the Final Four in 1978, come within a basket of upsetting Larry Bird’s Indiana State team in 1979 and advanced in this year’s tournament by beating defending national champion Louisville 74-73 on a miracle halfcourt shot from U.S. Reed.
Just how well Brown had LSU playing was demonstrated by how thoroughly they controlled a team with this pedigree. Macklin led a strong rebounding effort that controlled the glass, the score was 34-18 by half and LSU coasted home to a 72-56 win.
They would play another team probably better than its seed number indicated in #7 Wichita State. The Shockers had two future NBA forwards in Antoine Carr and Cliff Levingston and had just nipped in-state rival Kansas 66-65 to reach this round.
LSU might have been the powerful #1 seed, but from the perspective of history, their cast paled in comparison to what Carr and Levingston were. It’s a credit to Brown on just how well he got this talent to come together.
Macklin continued to be great, with a 21/10 day in the regional final. Mitchell went for 17/6 and center Greg Cook added 19/7 in a display of frontline dominance. The Tigers again grabbed the big halftime lead, 48-33 and they won 96-85. Macklin was the region’s Outstanding Player.
THE 1981 FINAL FOUR
With four excellent teams that all had seemed to be peaking even prior to the NCAA Tournament, the stage seemed to be set for a great show in Philadelphia. Instead, after such an exciting tournament, all three games at the old Spectrum followed the pattern of good first half followed by a second-half blowout.
Indiana played LSU in the early afternoon game on Saturday. The Tigers led 30-27 at half, but the Hoosier defense took over. They held LSU to 32 percent shooting, and in a game with a lot of good, aggressive forwards, Turner was the best. He delivered a 20/8 showing and IU pulled away 67-49.
North Carolina and Virginia renewed their ACC rivalry and it was tied 27-27 at the half. Then Wood turned one of the most electric performances in Final Four history. He went in, over and around Cavalier defenders for a 39-point performance. Sampson shot just 3-for-10 and UNC won 78-65.
On the Monday afternoon of the championship game, word came that President Reagan had been shot. The teams waited to find out if the game would be played. As it became apparent the president would survive, the decision was made to play the game.
Indiana led 27-26 at the half, and again their defense took over after intermission. They held North Carolina to 43 percent shooting. Wittman scored 16 points, Tolbert had 11 rebounds and Turner chipped in a 12/6. But the star of the night was Isiah. He finished with 23 points and led the way to the 63-50 win.
Thomas was named the Final Four’s Outstanding Player and if we’re just talking about Monday night, that’s true. Maybe it’s easy to say in retrospect and out of sentiment, but I think Turner was the MVP if we look at the two-game period as a whole, which is theoretically what the MOP is supposed to be.
Indiana had their second national title in six years and each one had come in Philadelphia.