Today in sports history: Johnson ends Penn's magic run

Profile Picture: Ryan Murphy

March 24th, 2020

Mention the 1979 NCAA Tournament to basketball fans of a certain vintage and their pulse will quicken, as they recount how Magic Johnson and his Michigan State Spartans ran roughshod over Larry Bird and his Indiana State Sycamores to win the national championship. They may even get a gleam in their eye as they break down each of Johnson’s 24 points, seven rebounds, and five assists, and gleefully tell you about how the future three-time MVP picked apart the opposing D with his pinpoint passes and fearless forays to the hoop.

It’s all true, of course. Johnson really was magnificent on basketball’s biggest stage, but he turned in an even better performance two days prior, March 24, in Michigan State’s Final Four matchup against Penn. And no, that isn’t a misprint. The University of Pennsylvania really did come within a game of playing for a national title 41 years ago.

The Quakers entered the 40-team tournament that year as the No. 9 seed, after a phenomenally successful regular season, in which they finished with a 25-7 record and made mincemeat of their fellow eggheads in the Ivy League. The team was led by Tony Price, a sweet-shooting 6-foot-6 guard who averaged 19.8 points per game and had the most badass sideburns in college hoops.

Price powered Penn to a shocking 72-71 win over No. 1 North Carolina in the second round, and scored 20 points in his team’s 84-76 dismantling of Syracuse in the Sweet 16. Up next was St. John’s, which Penn squeaked by 64-62 in another heart attack-inducing game. The hard-fought victory marked the first time in tournament history a team had beaten three higher-seeded opponents to reach the Final Four.

And that’s precisely where the good vibes ended. The Quakers made just three of their first 18 shots against the Spartans, and were outscored 50-17 in the first 24 minutes. By the time the first half had come to an end, it was painfully clear the clock had struck midnight for Cinderella.

Michigan State won the game, 101-67, thanks to a phenomenal performance from Johnson. The sophomore from East Lansing finished with 29 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists to become just the fourth player in NCAA history to record a triple-double in the Final Four.

Johnson went on to win Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA Tournament, and he embarked on a wildly successful NBA career, in which he was named to 12 All-Star teams and won five NBA championships with the Los Angeles Lakers.

Johnson doesn’t talk much about this game — which is shocking, considering the hundreds of other things he prattles on about — but it remains one of the greatest individual outings in Final Four history.

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