Niyo: Spartans' resolve carries them to Elite Eight

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Syracuse, N.Y. — They couldn't get a shot to fall for the longest time. Then they couldn't get a call.

But in the end, this Michigan State team — a team that has found a way to get more out of itself than anyone could have imagined — gets to play another game.

"I get to work another day," coach Tom Izzo said late Friday night — early Saturday morning, actually — after the Spartans' 62-58 win over Oklahoma here at the Carrier Dome. "I can't tell you how excited that makes me."

Friday night's slugfest with the Sooners wasn't pretty, or even palatable, at times. It was, as Michigan State junior Matt Costello, the guy with the black eye and bum knee, said, "a scrappy, nasty game."

Yet it was another testament to the Spartans' pluck, if not their luck. And so here they go, back to work and marching on to the Elite Eight for the second consecutive year. Seventh-seeded Michigan State will face No. 4 seed Louisville in Sunday's East Regional final.

It'll be a rematch of the 2009 Midwest Regional final, a game Michigan State won to make it to the Final Four at Ford Field in Detroit. And it'll be a matchup of two of college basketball's preeminent postseason coaches, Izzo and Rick Pitino, with 13 Final Four trips — and three national titles — between them.

Rough start

But this game? This was about the players, and some veteran leaders for Michigan State who simply didn't want to go home. Branden Dawson provided a second-half spark, while backcourt mates Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine showed steady heads — and hands — down the stretch, even hitting six clutch free throws in the final 90 seconds to seal the win.

"I never once think that we might lose, or we could lose," said Trice, who finished with a game-high 24 points, including four 3-pointers.

Maybe not, but that ragged start certainly had the rest of us considering the possibility.

Oklahoma scored on its first six possessions, the Sooners putting back their only two misses in the first 5 minutes. And Izzo was up off the bench early, yanking a jittery Lourawls Nairn Jr. after just three trips up and down the court. He then subbed for both his big men, Dawson and Gavin Schilling, mostly so he could yell at Dawson about the way he was playing.

Less than 6 minutes in, the Spartans trailed by 10. They missed 14 of 16 shots in one stretch. And the MSU cheering section behind the Spartans bench, which included both Magic Johnson and Matthew Stafford, was feeling as uneasy as the players on the court.

"In the first half," Valentine laughed later, "I felt like it was my first time playing basketball."

It wasn't, of course. And for the record, the Spartans have now played eight different NCAA Tournament teams in the month of March, and they've only lost to one of them: Wisconsin, the top seed in the West Region.

Not bad for a team that was flirting with the NIT back in February. And threatening to give their coach an ulcer the way the Spartans were throwing away games like empty Gatorade cups.

Meeting the challenge

Asked where this ranks on the list of improbable NCAA tournament runs, Izzo hardly blinked before answering, "First."

He jokingly blamed Friday's initial fumbling and bumbling on the fact his players went to a Will Ferrell movie in the afternoon to kill time waiting for their 10:15 p.m. tip-off.

But whatever it was, the Spartans managed to keep things from getting out of hand. The defense settled in, Oklahoma cooled off — the Sooners don't find many shots they don't like — and the halftime deficit was just 31-27. Then came an R-rated halftime scene in the Michigan State locker room.

"They needed to be challenged," Izzo said.

And they responded, finally tying the game with 14:31 left. But another scoring drought — and some more glaring misses from the free-throw line, as Michigan State started 3-for-10 — kept them from getting over the hump.

It wasn't until Dawson hit a rising 8-footer in the lane with 9:25 to play that that Michigan State held its first lead. Even then — even after Dawson's ferocious block on the ensuing Oklahoma possession — the Spartans weren't able to pull away, however.

But they're more than capable of handling the pressure. And they showed it again just after the clock struck midnight. With Michigan State clinging to 2-point lead, Valentine grabbed an offensive rebound off a Costello miss, heard a whistle and then broke into a grin as big as the basketball.

Not because Oklahoma's Ryan Spangler had just told him he was "too small." But because was headed to the line, with the game – and the season — on the line just as it would be for Trice on the game's final possession.

"They want that moment," Costello said.

Friday, they got it.