March 29, 2014 at 2:56 am

Bob Wojnowski

Michigan State's passionate Branden Dawson punishes Virginia

New York — When it comes to knock-down, drag-out basketball, Michigan State still can knock it down and drag it out with the best. This was a beautifully grimy game, the kind the Spartans expected, the kind they know they’ll have to win in this Tournament.

And now right on cue, they’re lining up for another shot at the Final Four. They beat Virginia 61-59 Friday night at raucous Madison Square Garden with the type of defensive effort they’ve been showing more and more.

The Spartans clawed through this one, with loud Cavaliers fans making it seem like a road game. They should be ready for more of the same Sunday against Connecticut, a local favorite that has its own batch of noisy fans and big guys, and one superb guard in Shabazz Napier.

Dawson dominant

It takes a fighter to win a fistfight, so it’s no surprise Branden Dawson was the punishing difference against Virginia. Since missing nine games with a broken right hand, incurred while angrily punching a table, Dawson has played as if possessed — in a good way, not the demonic way. When he took a risky lob pass from Adreian Payne and dunked with 52 seconds left, Michigan State forged a 56-51 lead and hung on.

“When I was out, I learned a lot from being on the bench,” Dawson said. “My teammates need me. I made a dumb mistake (with the injury), and I just knew I had to step up and be a man.”

Dawson did everything — 24 points, 10 rebounds and increasingly animated leadership. He and Payne were not letting the Spartans lose, even when it looked quite possible. Tom Izzo called Virginia one of the toughest teams he’s faced in the Tournament, and the Cavaliers slugged admirably. They just couldn’t shoot accurately against the Spartans’ defense — 35.1 percent — and that’s the best thing Izzo extracted from this one.

He didn’t like how Michigan State lost a 10-point lead and fell behind by four midway through the second half. Gary Harris was limited by foul trouble and the bench wasn’t overly productive, except for one huge 3-pointer by Travis Trice that put the Spartans on top, 43-40.

“That was a fistfight — every possession mattered, every part of the game mattered,” Izzo said. “And our defense the last six games has been phenomenal. That’s getting back to who we are, and that’s important because we kind of lost that for a little bit.”

Piece by piece

Izzo said all along that when the Spartans put their injured pieces back together, they’d put a run together. Keith Appling is still struggling, but Dawson is proving to be the piece they had to have. He’s averaging 20 points and nine rebounds in three Tournament games, and he puts the bite in the defense.

“I think that hunger just built up in him,” Denzel Valentine said of Dawson. “He’s been really emotional, and he just wanted to make a statement.”

Statement received by the Cavaliers, who were a No. 1 seed for obvious reasons. They’d won 18 of their last 19 games and stomped through the ACC. Then they ran smack into a Michigan State team that budged a bit, but wouldn’t buckle.

“A couple times we broke down and they made us pay, but they’re used to winning,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “I think they’re playing their best ball. Dawson makes all the difference. I can see why, without him, they were good. With him, they’re really good.”

There was a restorative feel to this for Izzo, who hadn’t made it past the Sweet 16 the past three seasons. Now the Spartans are one step from fulfilling their Final Four mandate, and helping a bunch of filled-out brackets.

Imagine the collisions that could await. Fourth-seeded Michigan State has to punch out a lowly seven seed (cough, cough) to punch its ticket to Texas for the Final Four. Over in Indianapolis, second-seeded Michigan has to punch out a lowly eight seed (cough, Kentucky, cough) to make it there, too.

It takes clutch plays in tight games to get there, and after Virginia tied it at 51, Michigan State made the clutch plays, starting with a Payne 3-pointer with 1:29 left.

“We knew it was going to be a dogfight, and we knew it was winning time,” Payne said. “That’s what you heard from the huddle. That’s what you heard from everybody.”

Dogfight, fistfight, alley fight. With Dawson back and the defense snarling again, the Spartans can take the fight to anyone, which is good to know. Because facing Connecticut in an unfriendly Garden atmosphere will be another battle not for the timid. In other words, the way the Spartans are starting to like it again.

Branden Dawson led the Spartans 24 points and 10 rebounds. / Dale G. Young / Detroit News
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