March 31, 2014 at 1:00 am

Bob Wojnowski

Shattered dreams as U-M, MSU eliminated

MSU players talk about loss to UConn
MSU players talk about loss to UConn: MSU's Gary Harris and Denzel Valentine talk about coming up short against UConn in the East Regional final.

New York – Crumple up the bracket and throw away the script. And remember magical moments aren’t preordained, even when it starts to look that way.

Look again and you see teary eyes and shattered hopes, and hear heavy words in muffled tones. On an amazingly tense Sunday, Michigan and Michigan State ran out of moments and out of time. Both had a chance to reach the Final Four, but in riveting back-to-back games, the state’s historic ride shrieked to a halt.

Michigan battled Kentucky to the end in a wild thriller in Indianapolis, losing 75-72 on Aaron Harrison’s three-pointer with 2.3 seconds left. Nik Stauskas’ final desperation heave went awry, and while there’s no solace in dropping a great game, there’s no shame in it either. Michigan has joined Michigan State as a basketball power, and the way these programs are built, they’ll travel this road again.

Michigan State didn’t wait until the final buzzer to suffer its fate in New York, losing to Connecticut 60-54. The Spartans fell behind, surged ahead, then fell apart, and a popular championship pick was shocked. When a Tom Izzo team gets this far, it almost always takes the next step, but this group played as if spent.

It was a stunning sight to see Michigan State turn the ball over 16 times, leading to all sorts of Connecticut mayhem. It was a sad sight to see senior Keith Appling, who never regained his confidence or shooting form after a wrist injury, slumped on a chair in front of his locker, head down, towel around his neck, wordless as cameras and reporters circled him.

“We made a lot of mistakes,” Appling finally said, not looking up. “I just feel like I let everybody down. We let everybody down.”

For 10 painful minutes, Appling answered questions about the turnovers and his late foul on Connecticut star Shabazz Napier, as well as his fate (along with Adreian Payne) of being the first four-year seniors not to make the Final Four under Izzo.

As much as the NCAA Tournament is about glory found, it’s also about opportunity lost, and the Spartans squandered a prime one. After an inexplicably sluggish start, they rallied to take a 32-23 second-half lead. But Appling couldn’t do much, finishing with two points, two assists and four turnovers. Payne shot four-for-14, and maybe the weight of it all, from injuries to pressure to a leader-less offense, wore them down.

Izzo said he felt bad for Appling, but was baffled by his team’s sloppiness.

“I’ll beat myself up for a week on why we laid an egg,” Izzo said. “Hate to say it, but I’m a big believer in you get what you deserve. We did not deserve to win. We didn’t seem mentally as sharp as we needed to be. We started out poor, we looked drained. So maybe it wasn’t our time, wasn’t our turn.”

Maybe it was going to be Michigan’s turn again, and that certainly looked possible as it raced to a 10-point lead against Kentucky’s precocious freshmen lineup. John Beilein is proving to be a March master, too, but the Wildcats simply had too much size and inside power, despite the senior will of Jordan Morgan and the shooting of Stauskas.

Senior strength is a real thing, and so is talent and height. Julius Randle, a 6-9 load, had 16 points and 11 rebounds, and it was up to Morgan to hang in. They had their chance, wiping out a 62-55 deficit with 6:32 left. Morgan’s tip-in finally tied it, before Harrison broke it with a long, staggering shot.

This was tremendously entertaining competition, and amid the disappointment, the Wolverines had no reason at all to apologize.

“Both teams played really well, and I think even the people that were sitting in the highest seats got their money’s worth,” Beilein said. “So I’m really proud of our team. They hit big shots when they needed to and so did we.”

It was back and forth, up and down, with Stauskas scoring 24 points and Glenn Robinson III delivering in the clutch.

“They made a great shot,” Stauskas said. “It’s part of basketball. You’re going to make the shot sometimes, and it’s going to go against you sometimes. So you gotta tip your hat to Kentucky.”

The fun thing about the Tournament is the unpredictable swings, where big leads can disappear and beaten-down teams suddenly can look unbeatable. The Wolverines were gaining that championship sheen, then ran into a team doing the same.

So were the Spartans, who couldn’t explain the batch of mental and physical errors that rendered their staunch defense moot. This was the best and the ugliest of Michigan State in one viewing, witnessed by a raucous pro-Connecticut crowd in Madison Square Garden. A team that emerges from adversity usually is tougher for it, but without a productive Appling, the Spartans always were going to be one lapse from trouble.

The final lapse was an unfortunate one by Appling, who fouled Napier on a three-point attempt with 31 seconds left. Napier hit all three free throws for a 56-51 lead, and that was pretty much it. That also was it for Appling, who slapped his hands on his head and sprinted to the bench in disbelief, fouled out of the game, his college career over. The call was close but there was contact, and Appling was almost too distraught to talk afterward, finally speaking in barely audible tones.

His teammates were devastated too, for the seniors and for themselves.

“It’s so hard, I don’t know what to say,” Denzel Valentine said. “I’m just heartbroken right now. We didn’t come out and play the way we have in the Tournament, and we got what we deserved.”

That was Izzo’s point, and it’s the reason they play these games and don’t just pencil in the winners, not even in the president’s bracket. It’s about passion and steely nerves, and who can sustain them the longest.

Big guys crack too, and that’s what an underdog like Connecticut was counting on.

“We wanted to hit first,” Huskies coach Kevin Ollie said. “Everybody was kind of picturing them as the giant, and we didn’t want to wait for the giant. We wanted to go meet our giant.”

The giant was felled and landed hard, and that’s how giants fall. The Spartans and Wolverines nearly ended up in the same place, and it’s too bad they didn’t. The trip from dancing to despair is a short one, and the most-painful one to take.

Keith Appling runs off the court with his head in his hands after being called for his fifth foul near the end of the game Sunday. Michigan State lost 60-54 to Connecticut in the East Regional final at Madison Square Garden. / Dale G. Young / Detroit News
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