Seven days after he was on the losing end of one of the most controversial plays in March Madness history, Michigan State head coach Jed Heathcote was cornered by a reporter in the Final Four coaches’ hotel.
In the span of a week, a rule change had already been proposed allowing officials to use instant replay at the end of NCAA Tournament games to determine if a shot beat the buzzer or if it were a two- or three-pointer.
"Sure,” said Heathcote, laughing. “I'm receptive to change.”
Heathcote knew an overhaul was needed after Georgia Tech freshman Kenny Anderson stuck a dagger through the Spartans’ hearts just a week earlier in the 1990 Sweet 16 Southeast Regional.
Heathcote’s No. 3-ranked Spartans led the No. 4-seeded Yellow Jackets, 75-73, with four seconds left in regulation. Following a missed free throw by Michigan State's Steve Smith, Anderson pushed the ball quickly up the court, dribbled to the top of the key, and swished an improbable shot. One game official ruled it a three-pointer, triggering a Tech celebration. Moments later, it was ruled a two-pointer, sending the game into overtime. Heathcote complained Anderson's shot came well after time had expired, and TV replays showed he had a compelling case.
But nothing could be done. Tech went on to win, 81-80. "Anderson's shot sure to be Tech legend," read the headline in the Atlanta Constitution the next day.
“It wasn't late because they didn’t call it late,” Anderson recently told Yardbarker about the epic shot. “It went into overtime, and that's it. We won.”
Anderson hails from New York City, where he was one of the great playground players to ever touch the asphalt. On those rough-and-tumble courts, the game is the great equalizer. Ball don’t lie, they say, even if players sometimes do.
“I won't ever argue with you about it,” Anderson said of his remarkable NCAA Tournament hoop in 1990. “Anybody who wants to talk about it, we won the game.”
On the courts of Queens -– especially at Lost Battalion Hall, a recreation center near the Lefrak City housing development –- Anderson became a local king. His penchant for drama was obvious.
“We worked on a lot of those shots, me and my mentor, Vincent Smith,” Anderson said. “Not only games where it was decided by a shot, but games on the playground, where you had to be ready to perform.”
A third-team All-American as a freshman, Anderson teamed with one of college basketball’s best duos, Brian Oliver and junior Dennis Scott, to form a group nicknamed “Lethal Weapon 3.” Scott was the sharpshooter who led the team with a 27.7-point scoring average; Oliver, who averaged 21.3 points, was the steady presence who never faltered. But point guard Anderson, who averaged 20.3 points, almost instantly became the straw that stirred the drink.
"I had to straighten it all out and run the team," he said, "and I did.”
After cruising through East Tennessee State in the first round, the Yellow Jackets rebounded from a 19-point first-half deficit to beat Shaquille O'Neal-led LSU, 94-91, in the second round, advancing to face Smith and the Spartans in New Orleans.
Michigan State brought a 12-game winning streak to the Big Easy, but the team showed some cracks early in the tournament, needing overtime to beat No. 16 Murray State, 75-71, in the first round. In the second round, Michigan State snuck past UC Santa Barbara, 62-58.
Four years earlier, the Spartans were rocked by another NCAA Tournament clock fiasco.
With 2:21 left and Michigan State leading No. 1-seed Kansas, 76-72, the official timekeeper neglected to start the clock after the Jayhawks inbounded the ball. After 15 seconds of game play, including a Kansas basket that cut the Spartans’ lead to two, the timekeeper started the clock. The game was not paused. The time was not corrected. The game went into overtime, and the Jayhawks pulled out the 96-86 win.
Heathcote, who retired in 1995, got over that defeat, but the loss to the Yellow Jackets stung him for the rest of his days.
“I felt like we kind of got cheated out of that game,” Heathcote told Mike Lopresti of NCAA.com in 2015, two years before he died. “I used to kid [Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins] that I was afraid to turn my back on him. When I saw him, I’d grab for my wallet. But it wasn’t Bobby’s fault.” (The NCAA eventually approved the use of replay at the end of tournament games.)
All these years later, Anderson still teases Steve Smith about the game. The Michigan State star scored a game-high 32 points in the loss, but his miss on the front end of a 1-and-1 free-throw attempt gave Georgia Tech life.
“Steve Smith is a great friend of mine,” Anderson said. “I mess with him -- if he would've made those free throws, we wouldn't even be talking about this.”
To this day, Anderson -- who played 14 seasons in the NBA -- relishes his magical March Madness moment.
“This game is a forever game,” he said. “This is my best highlight. Probably the best in my career.”
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