Final Four! Spartans clip Cardinals in OT thriller

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
The Spartans mess up Tom Izzo's hair during their postgame celebration Sunday.

Syracuse, N.Y. – It seemed improbable right up until the point it was proven to be anything but.

Michigan State, the No. 7 seed in the East Region of the NCAA Tournament, was never expected to get back to the Final Four for the first time since 2010. Quite frankly, for parts of this season, it looked like MSU might not even make the tournament.

But after in impressive run in the conference tournament and another dose of March Magic from coach Tom Izzo, the Spartans are back in what they feel is their rightful place.

The Final Four.

A 76-70 overtime victory over No. 4 Louisville on Sunday did it for Michigan State and gave the Spartans their ninth Final Four appearance and seventh under coach Tom Izzo.

"I think the burning desire to be at this Final Four and to realize they didn't want to be a group that didn't make it," Izzo said, trying to sum up what he has seen his team do over the past two weekends. "I got a feeling it was more the battle cry all year long, and I negated that halfway through the year to a certain extent, and started talking about taking it one game at a time. But you could just tell listening to them that it meant the world to them to get here. They worked for it. They earned it, and we're going."

The Spartans (27-11) are going because Travis Trice scored 17 points, played 44 minutes and did an outstanding job limiting Louisville's Terry Rozier to 6-for-23 shooting.

They're going because Denzel Valentine shook off some early jitters to score 15, grab seven rebounds and hand out six assists.

They're going because senior Branden Dawson, virtually ineffective for most of the game, put back a missed Bryn Forbes three with 31.7 seconds to play to put Michigan State ahead by four. He followed that by knocking the ball away on the next trip to end Louisville's chances.

"Each one of these guys did some things that helped us win the game," Izzo said. "That's why they're our stars, and that's what I appreciate about them. They were on a mission to maybe start their own legacy."

It was a legacy they were determined to leave after last year's loss to Connecticut in the Elite Eight. But they did not do it alone.

Forbes, the junior transfer from Cleveland State, scored 14, each of his four 3-pointers at big moments. And Marvin Clark, the undersized freshman, grabbed a huge rebound at the end of regulation after putting MSU ahead with 40 seconds to play.

It was a team effort to the fullest as a sloppy defensive effort was locked down after halftime, holding Louisville to a 6-for-23 shooting performance in the second half.

Wayne Blackshear scored 28 for Louisville (27-9) and Montrezl Harrell scored 16, but Rozier scored just 13, thanks in large part to the defense Trice played.

"Rozier is a heck of a player," Valentine said. "Travis was determined to make it to a Final Four. Once you're determined, you can almost do anything. So he was always right there, right in front of him. Blackshear got hot, too. So he was kind of on an island basically because we couldn't help off of Blackshear. So he was on an island, and he played great defense. He led us."

Where he led them was to the Final Four, where they will take on Duke (Saturday, 6:09 p.m.), which beat Gonzaga on Sunday in the South Regional final. Izzo has beaten Duke's Mike Krzyzewski just once – in the 2005 NCAA Tournament – but that is a story for later in the week.

Sunday was about Izzo improving to 21-4 in the second game of an NCAA Tournament weekend. And it was about beating Louisville's Rick Pitino for the second time in the tournament.

"Any time you're in the Elite Eight, just that word 'elite' defines the eight teams," Pitino said. "Any time you lose in overtime, it's a heartbreaker. It's very difficult for all the players. … Congratulations to Tom and Michigan State. Tough loss. It's a bitter, bitter pill to swallow because we all had some big dreams."

Those dreams looked like they were coming true in the first half when the Cardinals took a 40-32 lead. It was only the third time all season the Spartans had allowed that many points in the first half and the first time since losing at Maryland on Jan. 17.

But Michigan State opened the second half with a 9-2 run to cut the lead to one, only to see Louisville go back up 49-43. The Spartans, however, answered with a 14-2 run that put them ahead, 57-51, with less than seven minutes to play.

Forbes it going with a 3-pointer and added another from the corner in transition. Trice then buried a deep three to put the Spartans ahead by six, their largest lead of the game to that point.

Louisville fought back, and when Blackshear hit a pair of free throws with 1:44 left, it was ahead 63-62. However, Clark took a feed from Valentine in the lane and banked in a shot with 40.4 left then grabbed a rebound off a Rozier miss and was fouled with 21.4 to play.

But he missed both free throws and Louisville was able to get to the line with 4.9 second to play. Mangok Mathiang, a 48-percent shooter, hit the first when it bounced high off the rim and fell in, but missed the second.

The game went to overtime.

"I was positive we were going to win it when the first free throw went in," Pitino said. "Because it shouldn't have gone in."

Instead, the Spartans took over the final five minutes.

Forbes opened with a three and later hit two free throws to give Michigan State a 70-66 lead with 2:27 to play. After Blackshear cut the lead to 72-70, Dawson got the decisive putback in the final minute.

"I can't put it into words," Trice said. "Just everything we've been through just this season. The ups and the downs, people doubting us. There came a point in the year where it was just us, just the people in our locker room and our program. We stuck together. We could have quit. We could have rolled over and died, but we didn't. We just kept fighting."

And now they'll fight again, in a place few – except for them – thought possible.