In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com
Five years after Indiana cut down the nets with an unbeaten team, they return to Philadelphia and claim their fourth NCAA Basketball Championship. The 1976 Hoosiers were marked by a team effort; the 1981 team was the story of Isiah Thomas, who carried Indiana to victory. Thomas scores 23 points in the final and wins Most Outstanding Player as Indiana beats North Carolina 63-50.
The NCAA Tournament began to enter a new era in the 1980s. A new deal to air the tournament on CBS in 1982 meant the 1981 Final Four would be the last time that the tournament was on NBC. The 1981 NCAA Tournament was the last to feature a third-place game, but both the consolation and title games were in danger of being postponed. Hours before tip-off, President Ronald Reagan was shot after giving a speech in Washington. NCAA officials waited until the President was out of danger and in stable condition to give the go-ahead to play the championship game.
Indiana was a one-man team in 1981, posting a 26-9 record for coach Bobby Knight, led by the magical ball-handling skills of Isiah Thomas. The Hoosiers had their struggles but went into the tournament playing their best basketball, winning five straight and seven of their last eight. Indiana continued the momentum into the 48-team tournament, beating Maryland 99-64 to reach the Sweet 16. Indiana had a big advantage in the Mideast Regionals as the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 were played on their campus in Bloomington. Indiana beat UAB 87-72, then beat St. Josephs 78-46 taking full advantage of their home cooking to reach the Final Four.
North Carolina was the #2 seed in the West Region. The Tar Heels were looking to land Dean Smith his first National Championship as they started their tournament run with a 74-57 victory over Pittsburgh. The Tar Heels survived a road game in the Sweet 16, beating Utah 61-56 at Salt Lake City. They reached the Final Four with an 82-68 win over Kanas State.
Rounding out the Final Four were Virginia and LSU. The Cavaliers reached their first Final Four with wins over Villanova, Tennessee, and BYU. Meanwhile, LSU made the Final Four for the first time in 28 years, beating Lamar, Arkansas, and Wichita State. In the semifinals, Indiana rolled over LSU 67-49 at the Philadelphia Spectrum. North Carolina, meanwhile, beat ACC rival Virginia 78-65. In the third-place game, Virginia edged LSU 78-74.
When the word came down that President Reagan was out of surgery and going to survive the assassination attempt, the final between Indiana and North Carolina was given the green light. The teams had met in December, while Indiana was sputtering at 7-5. North Carolina won that matchup in Chapel Hill 65-56. The first half of the championship game was tight, as the Hoosiers held a 27-26 lead. With Isiah Thomas scoring a game-high 23 points, Indiana pulled away in the second half, winning 63-50. The Hoosiers came out of the locker hot, outscoring North Carolina 12-4 to take firm control of the game.