Michigan State uses late rally to drop UConn, reach Battle 4 Atlantis final
It was late in the game Thursday and Tom Izzo had a message for his team.
“I told my guys, there are defining moments in every season,” Izzo recalled.
Where things go from this point is impossible to know, but if Michigan State ends up having a successful season — and at Michigan State, that means playing for championships — there’s a chance the Spartans can look back to their matchup with No. 22 Connecticut during the semifinals of the Battle 4 Atlantis.
Behind a couple of big shots from Gabe Brown, a remarkable few minutes from Julius Marble and a suffocating defense, Michigan State scored the final seven points of the game to rally for a 64-60 victory over UConn to advance to Friday’s championship game where it will face defending national champion Baylor, which defeated VCU in the other semifinal. Tipoff is at 11 a.m.
“We just beat a hell of a team,” Izzo said.
The Spartans (5-1) pulled it off behind 16 points from Brown — 11 coming in the first half — and a career-high 15 from Marble, including 13 in the second half. Marble was especially crucial to the victory with his play down the stretch, scoring eight of his points in the final three minutes.
His two free throws with 1:41 to play cut UConn’s lead to three and began the final 7-0 push that decided the game. After his free throws, Marble scored in transition to bring Michigan State within one.
“Every game our goal is to win the game,” said Marble, who played only 10 minutes. “So even if I’m playing 10 minutes or 20, I’ve got to stay focused on doing the right things defensively, offensively and being engaged even though I'm not playing as much. So just making sure I'm locked in and doing the right stuff is a big key.”
It was certainly a key for Michigan State, which then got a pair of free throws from A.J. Hoggard with 30 seconds left to take a 61-60 lead.
From there, the defense took over.
Malik Hall — the hero on Wednesday when he scored 24 in the win over Loyola Chicago — swiped a pass, got fouled and made two free throws to extend the lead to three. The Spartans then forced UConn into a deep 3-pointer that missed the mark and Tyson Walker split a pair of free throws to put the game away.
“I think it's a testament to our team and just never giving up, really,” Hall said. “It’s something that Coach has harped on from the very beginning, just make the winning plays, and it’s something he has been talking about since yesterday and the day before that. I think towards the end of the game we just made those winning plays and we got it done when we needed to.”
Adama Sanogo scored 18 for UConn (5-1) while Tyrese Martin added 16 and RJ Cole chipped in 10 before fouling out.
It was good enough for the Huskies to erase a 14-point first-half deficit and lead by seven with just less than five minutes to play. But they were held scoreless for the final 1:48, turning the ball over and not getting a decent shot on the final two possessions.
“When you play a team like Michigan State or Villanova, just teams that are in the right spots defensively,” UConn coach Danny Hurley explained. “We kind of telegraphed that post pass and then when we were down three, we wanted to try to open up the floor and just let the point guard get that flat ball screen at half court. We wanted Jalen (Gaffney) to really like make a beeline for the front of the rim and then you'll have our wings kind of know peel off if he couldn't get to the rim. Just try to get there quick, but Jalen just couldn't get going downhill and panic set in.”
Well before the final few possessions, it was Michigan State that, for the second straight day, got off to a quick start, opening a 9-2 lead as UConn struggled to put the ball in the basket, missing its first seven shots and starting the game 2-for-11.
Brown warmed up early to help the Spartans get the early lead and after the Huskies pulled within six points later in the half, it was Brown that pushed the lead back to double digits.
After a 3-pointer from Joey Hauser — his second of the first half — Brown hit a jumper at the elbow then drilled a triple from the corner to give Michigan State a 32-18 lead with 3:33 to play in the half. The Spartans cooled off, however, missing their last five shots of the half as Connecticut scored six in a row to cut Michigan State’s lead to 32-24 headed to the locker room at halftime.
The Huskies narrowed the gap despite shooting poorly from 3-point range, finishing just 2-for-16 as Michigan State made the choice to guard Sanogo one-on-one and not double off of shooters.
“We chose whether we wanted to dig on him, whether we were going to double him or whether we were going to guard the 3-point shooters,” Izzo said. “We decided to guard the 3-point shooters more and they didn't get as many good looks and were 2-for-16. I thought that was a difference in the game.”
UConn rebounded quickly after the break, getting their legs back by going 7-for-9 in the first four-plus minutes, putting together a 14-3 run to tie the game at 41 with 15:15 to play. It was tight from there as the defenses started to control the game. The Spartans took a 48-46 lead with 8:54 to play on a running jumper in the lane from Brown, but a 3-pointer from Jordan Hawkins gave UConn its first lead, 49-48, with 7:45 left in the game.
The Huskies kept rolling, scoring the next seven, taking their biggest lead at 55-48 before a 3-pointer from Brown. Michigan State pulled within two with less than two minutes to play, but the Spartans couldn’t come up with a loose ball though on two defensive stops, giving up a put-back dunk from Martin with 1:41 to play to extend the lead to 59-55.
MSU kept plugging away, getting it to 60-59 in the final minute after a layup in transition from Marble. Hoggard then hit a pair of free throws with 30 seconds to play and Hall came up with the big steal to secure the Michigan State victory.
“It was a big win,” Izzo said. “But this tournament, it’s been unbelievable when you look at some of the games that there has been. We’ve been a part of two of them, so that’s a plus.”