MSU point guard Cassius Winston talks about what the team accomplished, and the disappointment of falling in the NCAA Tournament. Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News
Detroit — For the better part of the last two decades, the month of March has often meant Michigan State making deep runs in the NCAA Tournament.
With teams that were expected to do so and with teams that weren’t, more often coach Tom Izzo has his team rolling when it matters most.
That was supposed to be the case again this time around. The Spartans entered the NCAA Tournament as a 3-seed, but were the pick of many to make it all the way to San Antonio and bring home their third national championship and second under Izzo.
Instead, Michigan State didn’t make it out of the first weekend after 11th-seeded Syracuse used its zone defense to stymie the Spartans in a 55-53 victory that sent the Orange to the Midwest Regional semifinals where they’ll take on Duke on Friday.
“Probably the saddest I've ever been in my life,” sophomore Miles Bridges said. “I wanted to send my best friend, Tum Tum (Nairn), out the right way, and our seniors — Ben Carter and Gavin Schilling. And unfortunately I couldn't do that. That was my only goal for this year, and I'm sad I couldn't do it.
“I couldn’t believe we had lost (when the horn sounded). I thought we had the best shot to win the national championship. Unfortunately we didn’t do that, so this is probably the saddest I’ve ever been in my life.”
Added freshman Xavier Tillman in the postgame locker room, “Damn. Everybody was crying and sad. It’s really surreal right now. I can’t believe the season’s over with.”
The loss is the latest in a three-year run that is unprecedented in the Izzo era. After the first-round loss to Middle Tennessee State in 2016 and getting knocked out in the second round last season by Kansas, the Spartans have now failed to reach the Sweet 16 three straight seasons.
That has never happened under Izzo.
But unlike when Middle Tennessee shot the lights out and Kansas was simply better, this loss had a different sting because of the fact Michigan State shot a season-low 25.8 percent (17-for-66) while going 8-for-37 from 3-point range.
The Spartans (30-5) missed their final 14 shots of the game and were 3-for-18 from 3-point range in the second half.
“I feel like we missed shots,” Bridges said. “We got the shots that we wanted. We just couldn't get inside as much as we wanted to because the zone is so long, but we just missed shots.”
Cassius Winston scored 15 to lead Michigan State, but he was 4-for-12 shooting while Bridges scored 11 points but made only four of 18 shots. Nick Ward added 10 points while Joshua Langford, who was the catalyst in Friday’s win over Bucknell, was just 1-for-12 shooting.
“They were so long, it was hard to get layups or the easy basket,” Winston said. “We got some open threes, we got some good looks at the rim. Our mindset, we just knew one was going to drop.
“We had good looks, in my head one of them had to drop, one of them was bound to fall. Just never happened.”
Syracuse, the last at-large team to make the field that was playing for the third time in five days, took advantage of all of Michigan State’s missed opportunities. The Orange took 24 fewer shots than the Spartans but they were 24-for-31 from the free-throw line as Tyus Battle, Oshae Brissett and Frank Howard routinely attacked the basket.
Battle finished with 17 for Syracuse (23-13) while Brissett chipped in 15 and Howard added 13.
“Our defense has been good this whole tournament all the way,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “It's obviously been the key for us. We wanted to get to their shooters, and we did a great job of that. They made two bank shot threes and we were still able to persevere — this team perseveres through no matter what happens.”
It was clear from the outset that making shots was going to be tough for both teams as both turned ball over more often than they were putting it in the basket.
Michigan State turned the ball over nine times while making eight shots, including 5-for-19 from 3-point range. Syracuse was just as bad, handing the ball over eight times while making just one triple and shooting 8-for-20 overall.
The Spartans managed to take a 25-22 lead at the break after a desperation three from Matt McQuaid, and when the second half started, the looked more comfortable, opening a six-point lead. However, Syracuse started getting to the free throw line. And when Michigan State missed six straight, the Orange were able to trim the MSU lead to 38-37 with 12:20 to play.
Michigan State was able to get the lead back to five after a Tillman put-back and a dunk in transition from Bridges to give the Spartans a 44-39 lead with 7:21 to play. It was Michigan State’s first fast-break basket of the game and got the crowd to its feet as Syracuse called a timeout.
Michigan State forward Nick Ward talks about what went wrong in the loss to Syracuse in the NCAA Tournament. Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News
However, Michigan State made just one basket the rest of the way — a running jumper from Winston.
“We were getting good shots, we’re just not making them,” Ward said. “Make our free throws and everything else would be good. Our defense — we did everything right, we just didn’t make shots.”
While Michigan State was missing its last 14 shots, Syracuse got one big one from Battle with 47 seconds left that put the Orange up three. It was one the Spartans couldn’t overcome.
“I feel like I let my team down,” said Bridges, who missed five shots down the stretch. “I could have made some plays, could have got some rebounds.”
Winston had one last shot for a miracle but his half-court heave banged off the backboard.
“I for sure thought he’d make it,” Bridges said. “It’s March Madness, anything goes.”
It didn’t go, and once again, Michigan State was left wondering how its NCAA Tournament ended well before it expected it to.
“It’s sad when you're in the locker room with some of those guys that don't get another chance,” Izzo said. “But there's nothing that I can say that they didn't do. They played every bit as hard.”