St. Louis — Denzel Valentine walked off the floor for the final time in a Michigan State uniform with a dazed look in his eyes, even holding his hands out as if he was looking for an answer.
It was hard for most at the Scottrade Center to fathom what happened on Friday afternoon, and it was especially hard to digest for Valentine and his fellow seniors. Their dream of winning a national championship had just ended in a stunning, 90-81 loss to 15-seed Middle Tennessee State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
It was hardly what Valentine, Matt Costello and Bryn Forbes envisioned, putting every bit of energy they had into getting back to the Final Four after losing last season to Duke. But that’s where they found themselves, Costello with his head in his hands and Forbes staring at nothing, his eyes not moving.
“I can’t believe what’s going on,” Costello said in the locker room. “I feel like it’s a dream right now, but it’s real.”
Real was the fact that each had their moments on Friday, and each missed opportunities to pull Michigan State up and get them over the hump. But a heroic moment from the seniors never came.
Costello had the best game, scoring 22 and grabbing nine rebounds, but his front-end miss of a one-and-one with 1:50 to play kept Michigan State behind by three. That came after Valentine and Forbes each missed 3-pointers that would have tied the game.
But it was a struggle most of the game. Forbes ended up with 14 points, but he was scoreless in the first half. And Valentine turned the ball over six times and was just 5-for-13 shooting for 13 points.
None, however, was deflecting responsibility.
“I wasn't sharp at all in the first half,” Forbes said. “Then at halftime the coaches just put it to us that we were playing terrible. I was playing awful. So, I know I had to pick it up, but it still wasn't enough.”
Valentine took the heat during the postgame news conference, and it had Tom Izzo fighting to hold his emotions together.
“I was frustrated (by their defense), but I mean as a basketball player you're going to have to deal with that, got to learn how to deal with that,” Valentine said. “With great power comes great responsibility and I didn't handle it today. Just (stinks) that we're going home now, but I got something that I'll never forget for the rest of my life; that when you're in this position and everybody's looking at you, you've got to come through. I didn't come through today and I'll remember that for the rest of my life.”
He didn’t get it done on the court Friday, but Izzo wasn’t complaining.
The seniors – Colby Wollenman included – were a special group he said, his eyes red as he struggled to relay his feelings.
“They gave me everything,” Izzo said. “They gave me the ability to sleep with two eyes shut again. That disappeared for a few years.”
Spartans coach talks about the career Valentine had
Later, Izzo said if his son grew up to be like Valentine, Costello, Forbes or Wollenman, he’d “a happy guy.”
The senior class finished with 112 victories, three shy of the record 115 held by the 2001 team. It was only going to be happy with six more, and that’s what made the emotion hard to avoid on Friday.
“You're supposed to coach every team and every game the same way,” Izzo said. “But let's face it, there are some guys and some teams that just do more for you. They resurrected me, for whatever length I coach, whatever number of years it's going to be, I'll owe them that. They brought the fun back into it. Not a lot of bad days at practice for the 120-some we had. Never a bad trip. Never a concern.
“I can look everybody in the eye and say I'll probably never have a team like this. I'll probably never have guys like this, but we'll shoot for it. But this is a special group and that's why there's all the emotion. That's why it's a tough time.”