MSU takes out OSU; nemesis Maryland next
Chicago — It's the nature of tournament basketball — don't get too caught up in celebrating a win because the next game is coming up pretty quickly.
Michigan State has been great at handling that over the 20 years Tom Izzo has been the coach, and it will do so again after knocking off Ohio State, 76-67, in the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament on Friday at the United Center.
The Spartans (22-10) advance to play Maryland in the semifinals at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday. The Terrapins knocked off Indiana earlier on Friday. It's a chance at redemption for the defending champions of this event as Maryland won both meetings during the regular season.
And as much as Michigan State will be thinking about that — and that it would like to get to the title game for the third time in four seasons — the matchup will be telling for a team that has seen its share of ups and downs this season.
"(The Maryland game) is the key," junior Denzel Valentine said. "Maryland is a great team with a great coach and we have to come out ready to play with the same energy we had today and not make those mistakes in the second half."
Added senior guard Travis Trice, "It is really big for us. It's our first quick turnaround and we'll see how mentally tough we are, especially against a great team. They are playing really well and they beat us twice this season, but we feel like they are playing better now than they were early on."
Maryland was Michigan State's Achilles heel this season, winning a close one in overtime at Breslin Center to open Big Ten play before blowing the Spartans out in College Park a couple of weeks later.
Now the Spartans, in short order, must find a way to slow the tandem of Melo Trimble and Dez Wells.
"That's one hard thing about the tournament, to play in that short a time," Izzo said. "But they've got almost the same situation. We'll see what we can do. We'll have some fun tonight, and I'll tell you, if there's a better thing to do during March Madness than to stay up all night and work, it's the greatest thing there is. I really mean that sincerely. I love the moment, I love the opportunity. I'm getting a little old for it, but it's still a lot of fun."
There was work to do to get to that point, however, and only parts of it were fun.
Michigan State was in complete control at times on Friday against Ohio State, leading by 16 in the first half before watching the lead shrink to eight before pushing it back to 17 with just more than six minutes to play.
But a familiar script began to play out as the Spartans began to suffer a rash of missed free throws mixed in with some untimely turnovers and a few 3-pointers from the Buckeyes. Ohio State cut the lead to 61-56 with three minutes to play, but Michigan State managed to hit just enough free throws to pull away.
Valentine scored 23 to lead the Spartans while Trice had 18 and Branden Dawson chipped in 14 points. Valentine and Dawson also each had eight rebounds and seven assists.
"Just don't panic," Valentine said. "We've been in this position before plenty of times this year. We've been up on teams and have come back and we've been on the opposite side where we give up the lead and end up getting beat. We didn't want to make that same mistake."
Ohio State (23-10) made its initial surge in the second half when it cut the lead to 38-33 less than two minutes into the half as the game got a bit sloppy. But the Spartans continued to defend well and back-to-back dunks from Valentine and Dawson pushed the margin to 47-37 with 11:36 to play.
That's when Trice started to take over, scoring 10 of the next 12 Michigan State points as the Spartans pushed the lead to 59-43 with 7:57 left. Trice started the run with two straight 3-pointers – one from 4 feet behind the arc – and then added a layup on the break and finished with a drive to the hoop.
Michigan State eventually took its biggest lead at 60-43, but many of the issues that have plagued the Spartans all year crept up again as their play got sloppy and Ohio State scored eight straight to cut the lead to 60-51 with 4:25 left.
The Spartans missed two front ends of one-and-ones and Marc Loving hit a 3-pointer to cut the lead to 61-56 after Nairn split a pair of free throws. But Trice answered with two free throws and Dawson scored four straight as the lead grew to 67-58 with 1:57 to play and the Spartans never looked back.
"Branden and even Zel were flirting with a triple‑double and there's only been a couple in the history of our school," Izzo said. "And then Travis had that stretch in the second half where he was just shooting it. So each one of our three amigos here that need to play well had stretches where they were unbelievable, and that's why you win games."
D'Angelo Russell scored 19 for Ohio State (23-10) while Shannon Scott and Sam Thompson added 13 points each.
"There's got to be a level of consistency with what we're doing," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. "As we told our guys, this game with Michigan State, I don't know how many times we play, but it's runs, it's runs, it's runs. One of the emphases was trying as hard as we could not to allow the runs, and I think that's something that — getting down the way we did in the first half, and I told the guys after the game, it can't happen. I mean, we burn two timeouts in the first half to stop the runs."