March 30, 2013 at 10:29 pm

John Niyo

Michigan State's NCAA run ends against a familiar foe

Indianapolis -- One way or another, this was going to feel like déjà blue.

Survive and advance, and it's looking like 2009 all over again for Michigan State, just as we figured it might on Selection Sunday.

Come up short against Duke in the Sweet 16, though, and it'd leave Tom Izzo and the Spartans feeling be-Deviled again..

Friday night at Lucas Oil Stadium, it was the latter — from the grizzled, teeth-gritting coach to the frustrated freshman slumped in front of his locker — as Michigan State's NCAA Tournament luck ran cold and its offense even colder in a 71-61 loss to Duke in the Midwest Regional.

It took a red-hot shooting night from Duke's Seth Curry, who hit a career-high six 3-pointers and dropped most of his 29 points on Gary Harris, to call a halt to the Spartans' championship hopes.

But it also took a frigid second-half performance from the Spartans' offense, conspiring with a flurry of whistles, to make for a fitful night and probably a fitting end for this Michigan State team. All season the Spartans fought to find a comfortable groove only to discover a rut just down the road, dogged by injuries and inconsistency.

Friday night's loss was just more of the same. And if you couldn't see it on Harris' face as he winced in pain after aggravating a nagging shoulder injury — or in Adreian Payne's awkward gait as he dealt with a back injury he'd suffered in practice Wednesday — you certainly could hear it in Izzo's raspy voice afterward.

"We just couldn't get over the hump," he said, wincing a bit himself. "And that was disappointing."

Slipping away

So is this, of course: Another loss to Duke, the program against which Izzo has always measured his own.

"It doesn't feel good to be 1-8 or whatever we are against Duke," said Izzo, whose program actually is 2-8 all-time against the Blue Devils. "I think a lot of those times they had better teams. But a couple of those times I thought we were as good, and they still beat us."

This was one of those times, no doubt.

And that only made the short bus trip home to East Lansing longer for the Spartans, who'd certainly convinced themselves they had the makings of another Final Four team, much like the one that followed a similar path in 2009.

"They were the better team tonight," Izzo said. "But if we'd have played our best and got beat, you can live with that a little (easier.) Right now, it's gonna be hard for me to live with for awhile. And hopefully that'll drive me and us."

Friday, the beginning of the end started innocently enough. Michigan State didn't commit its first turnover — something Izzo was fretting about all week — until nearly 7 minutes had elapsed. By the second TV timeout, both teams were shooting better than 50 percent from the field, running their half-court sets and trading baskets.

But Michigan State got a bit sloppy midway through the half, with Branden Dawson picking up a silly second foul — a sign of things to come — and Keith Appling and Harris tossing away consecutive possessions.

At the other end, the Spartans were struggling to keep track of Curry, Duke's senior shooting star. He hit three early 3-pointers, the last to cap an 8-0 run that built a 25-18 lead. Then, after an Appling jumper, Travis Trice was late jumping out on another Curry attempt, sending him to the line for three free throws — another bit of foreshadowing.

Because, though Michigan State did clamp down defensively and finish the half on a 9-2 run to pull within 32-31 at the break, that was as close as it would get.

Whistle stops

This was a marquee matchup between two of college basketball's most successful programs over the last couple decades. Duke and Michigan State have made a combined 24 Sweet 16 appearances in the last 16 years.

And, as you'd expect, everyone seized on the coaching clash between Krzyzewski and Izzo, who even after it was over called it "my dream" matchup. But it was Coach K on Thursday who'd reminded everyone this wouldn't simply be a "chess match." It'd be a ballgame, with players making plays — the way Curry did all night — and, yes, refs making calls.

"I'm sure they thought they did a hell of a job," Izzo said of the officials and his obvious frustration with some of the whistles, including one for a timeout in the second half when it appeared Duke was guilty of a 5-second call on an inbounds play.

"But I thought I did a hell of job," he added, sarcastically patting himself on the back. "I bit everything I could bite a couple times."

Still, Izzo admitted, "All that being said, that didn't cost us the game."

It just cost the game any real flow in the second half, as the refs called 28 fouls and the teams combined to shoot 35 free throws in the final 20 minutes.

That stop-and-start reality, coupled with Curry's run-and-shoot game, simply proved too much for the Spartans to overcome.

"There were a lot of touch fouls that were called," said forward Branden Dawson, one of seven MSU players who finished with three or more fouls. "It was very frustrating."

Almost as frustrating as watching Curry bury shots from behind the arc. He took three 3-pointers in Duke's first four possessions after halftime, and he made all three. Spotting up for one, jumping out for another, then draining the third off a ball screen on Harris that had Izzo more than a little annoyed.

"It's not his fault," Izzo said of his freshman guard. "I mean, (Curry) made some shots that were great. But I think (Harris) had a hard time covering him the way it was called."

Education

Maybe so, but even Harris, who went 2-for-11 and finished with his left shoulder throbbing again, gave credit where credit was due.

"He's a veteran player," he said of Curry, "and he kind of took me to school today."

And after another Curry jumper in Harris' face — this time from inside the arc, on a shot Harris thought he might've tipped — Duke's margin was eight again and the Spartans were forced to play catch-up.

That's a familiar feeling for Izzo, who has talked for years about chasing Duke and reiterated in the hallway outside the locker room well after midnight. ("It's still my pursuit," he said. "And I will pursue it.")

But it's an uncomfortable feeling on the court against one of Krzyzewski's teams. As Izzo noted Thursday, "You don't beat Duke unless you beat Duke. They're not going to beat themselves."

And you're not going to beat them unless you can score, which Michigan State simply couldn't do for much of the second half.

They made just one field goal in a stretch that lasted from the third minute of the half until the 17th. And with 3:30 left this was the ugly second-half stat line: three field goals, seven turnovers, 10 fouls.

Duke's double-teaming in the post clearly flustered Derrick Nix, who was in foul trouble early and finished 3-for-10 in his final collegiate game. And Harris never really shook free all night, making this an unhappy homecoming for the MSU freshman.

"He probably had his worst game on both ends as a freshman," Izzo said.

And so it ends for all of them: A missed shot, a frustrating finish and a painful reminder.

"And I guess," Izzo said, "we're just gonna have to take all summer to be upset about it."

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

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Try as he might, Tom Izzo couldn’t keep Michigan State from fading in the second half against Duke. / Dale G. Young/Detroit News
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