St. Louis – Michigan State had one goal this season, and it was simple and clear – win the national championship.
It never wavered on that, the sting of last season’s loss in the Final Four lingering through the offseason and into the fall. From that moment, in the wake of a 20-point loss to Duke, getting to Houston and this season’s Final Four was the only thing driving the Spartans as their sights narrowed on what would have been Michigan State’s third national title.
That collective mindset, the team-wide belief that a national championship was there for the taking, made what happened at the Scottrade Center on Friday all the more stunning.
Michigan State, the No. 2 seed in the Midwest Region of the NCAA Tournament and a favorite to win it all, never led and was upset by No. 15 Middle Tennessee State, 90-81.
“Right now this is the hardest loss I’ve gone through,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said, “and it’s all because of the guys, not for any other reason than the guys.”
Denzel Valentine, a candidate for national player of the year, struggled the entire game despite handing out 12 assists, turning the ball over six times and scoring 13 points in 5-for-13 shooting. Matt Costello scored 22 for the Spartans (29-6), who lost for the first time in nine games, while Bryn Forbes scored 14.
None of it was enough to stave off arguably the biggest upset in the history of Michigan State basketball. Izzo compared it to the loss to Weber State in the 1995 NCAA Tournament, the last game of Jud Heathcote’s career when MSU was a No. 3 seed and Weber State was No. 14.
But this one derailed a run to the national title that was starting to seem like a forgone conclusion for Michigan State, which ended with the Spartans becoming the eighth No. 2 seed to lose to a 15-seed in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
It was also the first time Michigan State was a 2-seed and didn’t reach the national title game, winning in 1979 as a 2-seed and losing in the championship game in 2009.
Spartans upset in first round by Middle Tennessee
“I've got a lot of emotions running through my head right now,” Valentine said. “I'm more mad and disappointed because I know what this team could accomplish. Matt had a heck of a game. Bryn, bounced back in the second half. I'm just really disappointed right now. That's probably one of the worst games we played all year, and it happened to be in the first round. You can't have that if you want to win championships. … Today it kind of fell apart. It just sucks right now because I know the capability our team had.”
Middle Tennessee State, the champion of Conference USA, came out swinging early and never let up. The Blue Raiders led 17-4 before anyone had broken a sweat and finished the game shooting 11-for-19 from 3-point range and 55.9 percent overall.
Five players scored in double figures as Michigan State rarely had an answer defensively, giving up 90 or more points for only the second time all season. Reggie Upshaw scored 21 while Giddy Potts scored 19 for Middle Tennessee (25-9). Darnell Harris and Perrin Buford each added 15 points and Jaqawn Raymond scored 11 for the Blue Raiders, who will now face No. 10 Syracuse on Sunday.
“We had expectations for ourselves, but we just failed defensively today,” Costello said. “That's where we've hung our hat all year, and we couldn't stop them.”
The only team better this season was Oakland with 93, and Michigan State figured out a way to win that game. It’s something it never managed to resolve on Friday.
The Spartans trailed from the opening minute and never got over the hump.
Midway through the first half, they cut the Blue Raiders’ margin to 23-21, but Middle Tennessee had plenty of answers, extending the lead back to 35-26 with five minutes left in the half before taking a 41-35 lead into halftime.
Early in the second half, the Spartans got to within 45-43, but Forbes and Valentine both missed open 3-pointers that would have given Michigan State the lead. Instead, Middle Tennessee State responded by building the advantage to 60-51 with 12 minutes left in the game.
But Michigan State had one last push left.
Costello hit a jump-hook in the lane to cut the deficit to 65-64 with about eight minutes to play but got called for a foul on the other end as Darnell Harris made the shot and the free throw to put the Blue Raiders ahead 68-64 with 7:41 to play and eventually went up 77-71 with four minutes to play.
Eron Harris then made 3-pointer to cut the deficit to 77-74 and after a stop, Colby Wollenman got fouled and hit two free throws to make it 77-76 with 3:34 left in the game.
Middle Tennessee answered again and got a three-point play from Buford to push the lead back to three. Michigan State had its chances from there but Forbes and Valentine both missed 3-pointers and Costello missed the front end of a one-and-one.
“I think it was with three minutes left in the game, it was a huge possession,” Buford said. “We were up three and we came up with a huge rebound. We went down and ran some good offense, and I was like, ‘OK, we really got this.’ And I was like, ‘Guys, all the pressure's on them. We're just here trying to have fun and let's get it done.’”
Middle Tennessee put the game away at the free-throw line from there, and the celebration began as the Spartans walked off the court stunned.
“It’s a dream and it’s a nightmare,” Izzo said. “That’s what is cool and cruel about this tournament -- one and done is a special thing and you don’t get to have bad days.”