When Indiana State plopped into the Hogs’ NIT neighborhood this week, I thought of the Great Winnebago Race.
It happened in 1979, the last time the two teams played in basketball — back in glory days for both schools.
The two teams and fan bases had been stalking each other in an NCAA Midwest sub-regional. The Sycamores, with Larry Bird, were No. 1 and one of the amazing stories in college basketball. Arkansas, coming off a Final Four year and possibly a rebuilding season, was one of the surprise good stories in basketball. Sidney Moncrief had taken a team of hard workers and role players on his back and marvelous chemistry was created.
Both teams had been assigned to Lawrence, Kan., for the first-round games.
When I was driving along the interstate from Kansas City to Lawrence, I was passed by a blue-painted camper bearing Indiana State markings and full of several Sycamore fans. Soon, it encountered in another lane a red- and Razorback camper.
The Indiana State fans pulled alongside the Arkansas vehicle and shouted something out the window.
It was on.
The ISU camper sped ahead. The Arkansans caught up. For miles, they traded positions in sort of an impromptu poor man’s Daytona 500. During the race along a stretch of interstate, the campers encountered other vehicles with fans from one school or the other. Those joined the chase for short periods, honking horns and rooting on their favorites.
Most of the way the two vehicles were neck and neck at speeds close to 90 miles per hour.
When one vehicle would get a slight advantage, it would slow down and allow the rival to catch up. Then, the fans would roll down the windows and exchange taunts.
I don’t remember who actually won, probably decided by a maneuver in the final seconds. I imagine fans groups deciding to settle it for good possibly in the Midwest Regional final in Cincinnati.
Both the Sycamores and the Razorbacks got there.
What resulted at Riverfront Coliseum in Cincinnati was one of the greatest and most intense basketball games I have ever seen.
Bird was Bird until Moncrief, who probably played his best game as a Razorback, guarded him during the last five minutes. That’s when Super Sid turned into Really Super Sid as he pretty much shut down the NBA superstar to be.
The game came down to the last seconds and one of the most improbable endings ever settled by one of the worst, last-second, game-winning shots ever taken.
In trying to set up a final shot with the game tied, the UA’s U.S. Reed drove across the elbow and lost his balance, falling to the ground and getting called for traveling. Most UA fans thought he was tripped (it was unusual for Reed to lose his balance so awkwardly). There was no replay in those days. Maybe the officials missed the subtlety of the defensive maneuver. Maybe it was a no-call.
I was on the opposite end of the court and didn’t have a good view.
The Sycamores tried to set up a last-second play but the UA defense was good and intense and couldn’t get the shot they wanted and had to force one of the worst you could have drawn up.
Indiana State’s Bob Heaton drove the lane and let go of a left-handed scoop shot of the variety that one usually sees players tossing away casually as they are leaving the court after warm-ups.
The prayer shot went in with two seconds left, giving Indiana State a 73-71 victory and a berth in the Final Four at Salt Lake City.
Moncrief later said, as Heaton’s desperation shot went in, “the world came crashing down on my shoulders.”
One of the ultimate heartbreaks in basketball.
At the time, the mind went back to that earlier Winnebago race.
The game was kind of like that: wild, crazy, bold, both parties hitting the gas and one managing to get through traffic by probably two seconds.
A classic ending in a different era.
Fun days. Unnerving days — a few years before they began calling it March Madness.
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 501-505-1235 or email@example.com or follow him on twitter @dmaclcd)