News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett B-Sides

October 6, 2012

MARK BENNETT: Landmark win propels Sycamores to Hall

TERRE HAUTE — There’s a thin line between the possible and the impossible.

Sometimes, it’s a matter of physics. A 5-ounce bird cannot carry a 1-pound coconut, as we all learned in the Monty Python movie “The Holy Grail.”

Other times, though, the barrier is psychological.

There was a time when the following presumption was considered a basic fact of life in Terre Haute — Indiana State University cannot defeat Indiana University in men’s basketball. Simply impossible … especially in a game played on the Hoosiers’ home court … especially with Bob Knight coaching IU.

That little bird had a better chance of hoisting a coconut than any Sycamore hoops team would have inside Assembly Hall.

Or so people thought.

Until a quiet Saturday evening nearly 13 years ago.

Among all the on-court accomplishments that led to this Homecoming week’s inductions of Nate Green, Michael Menser and Matt Renn into the ISU Athletics Hall of Fame, the 63-60 victory on Dec. 11, 1999, by that trio and their ISU teammates over Knight’s Hoosiers in Bloomington, stands tallest, in my estimation. Other moments on their résumés shine, too — clinching the 2000 Missouri Valley Conference regular-season championship, Nate’s conference MVP award in 2000, the 2000 NCAA tourney trip to Salt Lake City, Michael’s two 3-pointers in the final eight seconds of a heart-stopping win over IU in Hulman Center the following season, winning the 2001 MVC Tournament, and beating 13th-ranked Oklahoma at Memphis in the ’01 Big Dance.

But beating IU beneath those NCAA championship banners as The General paced the sidelines transformed ISU in an unprecedented way. Even the magical run by Larry Bird and the ’78-79 Sycamores could not shatter that one entrenched barrier; ISU won 33 games that season, but did not face the Hoosiers. While Indiana State roared to a historic NCAA Finals duel with Magic Johnson and Michigan State, Knight led IU to the championship of college basketball’s second-tier postseason event — the NIT. Afterward, skeptics of the Sycamores still muttered, “Yeah, 33-1, but they never had to play IU.”

Two decades later, Nate, Michael, Matt and Co. gave their legendary ISU predecessors some closure on that issue.

They permanently blurred that line between the possible and the impossible.

The most diehard Sycamore believers might say they saw that landmark ISU victory coming in the 1999 Indiana Classic. But strap on a lie-detector and some might waver.

Let’s revisit the scenario, and you can set the odds …

IU entered the game with a 6-0 record, ranked 15th in the nation. ISU had a 4-4 record. IU had beaten the likes of Temple, Notre Dame and Kentucky. ISU had lost to George Washington, Ball State, Butler and Austin Peay. The Hoosiers’ starting lineup featured two future NBA players, A.J. Guyton and Kirk Haston. ISU was the best college offer available for nearly all of the Sycamore players, including seven who grew up in Indiana — “Hoosier country.” IU had never lost a single game in the Indiana Classic, an annual two-day, pre-Christmas tourney at Bloomington involving the Hoosiers and three underdog visiting teams from mid-major schools. ISU had not beaten IU since 1924.

In the 1999 Indiana Classic, IU and ISU won their Friday night games, setting up the Saturday night’s championship. Since beginning the Classic in 1974, those tourney finals had become a foregone conclusion. The Hoosiers always won. At tipoff against ISU, IU had a 51-0 record in its own Indiana Classic.

It’s hard to build a stronger case for the term “impossible.”

These Sycamores didn’t buy into that thinking, though. On the day in 1997 when their coach, Royce Waltman, took over an ISU program that had not finished over .500 in 17 years, he said, without hesitation, “Winning is always possible.” In 1998, they played IU in Assembly Hall, and flabbergasted the crowd by taking a 19-point lead into halftime, only to lose 76-70 after Menser sat out the second half with a broken nose.

In the 1999 rematch, the Hoosiers looked determined to prevent another quick start by ISU, jumping to a 10-2 lead. The Sycamores quickly closed the gap and took the lead 16-14 on a shot by Renn from the corner. “Right then, I knew we could play with these guys,” Waltman said.

And they did. In fact, Renn’s basket — with 13 minutes left in the first half — gave ISU the lead for good. Indiana never led again. Green and young teammate Kelyn Block forced Guyton to miss 16 straight shots. Renn scored 13 first-half points. Menser stole the ball from the Hoosiers four times.

After a final desperation 3-point attempt by IU clanged off the rim, the Sycamores celebrated at midcourt while a crowd of 14,328 watched in stunned silence. Green’s defensive work sparkled so brightly that he earned tourney MVP honors, despite scoring just seven points against Indiana. Renn, a motivational workhorse forward, and Menser, the sharpshooting playmaker, joined Green on the all-tourney team, giving ISU three of the five spots on that honor squad.

In a breathtaking and gracious gesture, Knight entered the visitors’ postgame lockerroom in Assembly Hall to congratulate and encourage the Sycamores, coached by his former assistant, Waltman.

“That’s one of those nights that happens where you just wish you were coaching the other team,” Knight told a media room full of equally shocked sportswriters. “We got out-played, out-coached, out-hustled, out-everything tonight.”

By Indiana State — IU’s little neighbor just 55 miles up Indiana 46, close enough to feel the shadow of the Hoosiers’ prominence.

Holy cow, Coach Waltman was right. It really is possible.

Thanks, Nate, Michael, Matt and teammates, for proving it.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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