Wojo: MSU headed to Final Four with guts, glory

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Tom Izzo has a head-to-head talk with Travis Trice Sunday against Louisville.

Syracuse, N.Y. – From tears to tears, the remarkable trek is complete, although it's not over. Of all Michigan State's rebound seasons, this is the unfathomable one, right down to the rebound that clinched it.

The Spartans grew from a team that wondered if it'd make the NCAA Tournament, to a team that sees nothing but possibilities. In the frenzied final moments of a thriller, they showed off their new-found wares, guts to glory.

Branden Dawson tapped in a rebound with 28 seconds left in overtime to seal Michigan State's 76-70 victory over Louisville Sunday, giving Tom Izzo his seventh Final Four trip. In the process, it closed a painful circle. The Spartans head to Indianapolis as a seventh seed, after being denied a year ago by seventh-seeded Connecticut.

The seeds for this Final Four run, the most-unexpected journey of Izzo's 20 seasons, were planted long before the frantic finish. Before you go back to the beginning, cherish the ending, as the buzzer sounded in the Carrier Dome and the players raced around, not knowing whether to hug or leap or simply run.

Travis Trice collapsed in tears. Players shook their heads in disbelief, the ironic product of real belief. They'd nearly lost in regulation, when Marvin Clark Jr. missed two free throws with Michigan State up by one, and Louisville responded with two free-throw attempts of its own with 4.9 seconds left. Mangok Mathiang bounced the first one in, missed the second, and when overtime began, the Spartans would not be denied.

In the huddle, players did the talking and Izzo did the listening.

"They said, 'Hey, we've been through seven or eight of these overtime games, we've lost more than we've won, but we're winning this one,' " Izzo said. "When they said it that way, and Travis said it that way, I didn't say nothing. We probably played a little better all season than I give us credit for. We've made some mistakes, but we're mistaking ourselves right to the Final Four."

Transformation is evident

That's classic Izzo, leading a non-classic Michigan State team. From self-deprecation to stunning self-confidence, the transformation is evident everywhere, in Trice's incredible drive, in Denzel Valentine's fearless direction, in Bryn Forbes' fearless shooting. There were legitimate questions if the Spartans were big enough, or talented enough, to play deep into March. And against Rick Pitino and fourth-seeded Louisville, there were questions whether they could keep up.

There aren't many questions left, except this one: Can Michigan State beat Duke on Saturday and reach the championship game. It'll be tough, and the Spartans should be underdogs again, right?

"That's a trick question because we kind of are the underdog," Valentine said. "But we believe that we can be here. We deserve it. So you can kind of say yes and kind of say no."

Underdogs in body, not in mind or spirit. You lose that feeling when you beat Georgia, Virginia, Oklahoma and Louisville. You lose that feeling when you trail Louisville 40-32 at the half, and your defense is getting picked apart.

It was, ahem, an interesting halftime chat between Izzo and his players. After that, the Spartans held the Cardinals to a staggering 6-for-32 shooting. Michigan State still only led 72-70 when Forbes fired a rare miss in the final 30 seconds and Dawson grabbed the rebound and banked it in, and the huge Michigan State throng in the stands erupted.

Dawson is the perfect picture of the Spartans' rebound. He has struggled, but led both teams with 11 rebounds and also made a key late deflection.

"Just being at the right place at the right time," Dawson said with a smile, a piece of the basket net tied into his East Regional championship hat. "It feels amazing. It was us against the world. People doubted us when we lost to Texas Southern (in December), and people said we're gonna be in the NIT tournament. But after losing to Wisconsin (in the Big Ten championship game), we knew we could play against any team in the country."

That's where it formed, when the Spartans basically had the Badgers beaten, then frittered it away and lost in overtime. But that's not exactly where it started. Go back a year to their tear-soaked locker room after they lost to Connecticut in the Elite Eight as a favorite, the first group of seniors under Izzo to never reach a Final Four.

Go back to early February, after a home loss to Illinois, when an angry Izzo told his team to stop closing huddles with the shout of "Indy!" They weren't worthy of Final Four talk, until they could prove they were.

Biggest in meaning

This might be the most-determined team of Izzo's storied career and it's looking for more, with Duke next, and then possibly unbeaten Kentucky. Trice grew as much as any senior ever has under Izzo. He's now a cutthroat scorer and instinctive passer, and led the way with 17 points.

Branden Dawson and Gavin Schilling team-up to stop Mangok Mathiang.

"I can't even put it into words," Trice said. "We stuck together. We could have quit. We could have rolled over and died, but we didn't."

True to what they do, the Spartans fought back this season with defense and clutch shooting. For all their grit, they've become dead-eye shooters, with Trice, Valentine and Forbes compensating for the team's free-throw woes.

It's amazing how tears of despair can turn into something altogether different. Izzo had lamented after the Big Ten loss that he'd desperately wanted a banner to hang, to mark the tumultuous season.

"This is a bigger banner," he said Sunday. "I don't know if it will be in size, but it will be in meaning. I wasn't really planning on working this late, but God, I love to work this time of year."

Work works, and so does belief. Izzo spun his message, and the Spartans are spinning it into something to savor forever.