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MSU's Branden Dawson hurts Virginia again

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Branden Dawson puts in a basket over the top of Darion Atkins.

Charlotte, N.C. — Before Michigan State takes the court, the players usually gather around Denzel Valentine and jump in a circle around the junior captain in an effort to psyche themselves up just before tip-off.

It's been Valentine's stage all season. He's the vocal leader, the player that gets the Spartans fired up.

On Sunday, as Michigan State was getting ready to take the floor against No. 2 Virginia at Time Warner Cable Arena, Branden Dawson stepped in. The senior wasn't about to let what could potentially be the biggest game of his career without doing everything he could.

"I'm usually the one that takes it over and is encouraging guys," Valentine recalled after Michigan State beat Virginia, 60-54. "B.J. just took it over for some reason so I was like 'Oh, he ready to play.' So when he did that, I knew he was ready to play. B.J., he just came out like a monster and he did what he's supposed to do. At halftime, I stayed in his ear. I knew if I couldn't be in the game, I had to stay in his ear. I just kept encouraging B.J. and he pulled through."

Valentine played only 21 minutes because of foul trouble, but his pushing of Dawson worked.

The 6-foot-6 forward was a tenacious defender the entire game, but early in the second half when Virginia had cut the Michigan State lead to 24-22, Dawson came up big offensively.

After Valentine hit a 3-pointer — his only basket of the game — Dawson scored five straight to push the Spartans' lead back to 10 points. Less than a minute later, he scored on a put-back to end a personal seven-point run.

"Coming to the locker room after the first half, we just kept telling each other that we definitely want to practice tomorrow," Dawson said. "Coming to this game … it being that Travis and I are seniors, we just kept telling each other 'Hey, we definitely don't want this to be our last game,' so we kept playing hard and we just kept playing with passion."

Dawson finished with 15 points, nine rebounds and four blocks. But it was in the middle of his seven straight points that Dawson showed how explosive he can be.

Off a Virginia miss, Valentine grabbed the rebound and quickly outletted to Trice. Dawson was running the middle of the floor, hollering to Trice for the ball. Trice hit him in stride and in one step went up, made the shot and drew the foul. He finished the three-point play with a made free throw.

"To me, that was an unbelievable play," Izzo said. "I would like to know what that 40 speed was. He looked like Secretariat, he just put in another gear. When he called Trav, he was 10 feet behind and I was right in line, and when Trav threw it, I said 'What was he doing?' It was one step. Branden has got some special skills that he doesn't even know he has sometimes."

It was the second straight year Dawson burned Virginia. In last season's Sweet 16 victory, he scored 24 points and grabbed 10 rebounds.

It had Virginia coach Tony Bennett happy to not have to face Dawson again.

"I think his eyes light up when he sees Virginia because he was terrific last year and he was good again," Bennett said. "He is so athletic and so strong and our guys had trouble finishing. … He was a man, he made some tough shots, blocked shots, got on the glass. And you can see why he's as good as he is, and he plays well in big games. He's done that twice on a big stage."