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Spartans are upset in first round by Middle Tennessee

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St. Louis — They walked off the court in a daze, as if they didn’t know where to go or what to do. It was a walk they never dreamed they’d have to take.

The Spartans were supposed to win it all, according to many. And they didn’t even win one, a shock they won’t easily shake, or explain. The very thing Tom Izzo has long relished — the sweet, sweaty pressure of March Madness — swallowed Michigan State whole, in perhaps one of the biggest upsets in NCAA Tournament history.

It’s impossible to explain, unless you saw the game, and then you get it. Middle Tennessee, the feisty 15 seed, played with frightening fearlessness, driving past Michigan State’s step-slow defenders, tossing in shots from everywhere. The Blue Raiders did things nobody does to the Spartans in a staggering 90-81 victory Friday in the first round of the Midwest Regional.

Use whatever hyperbole you wish, and it won’t be enough. Izzo called it the toughest loss in his 21-year coaching career. And while Michigan State became the eighth No. 2 seed ever to fall to a 15, you can easily argue this is the most shocking, because of the Spartans standing as a Tournament favorite and Izzo’s Mr. March moniker.

Before the Spartans could begin to fathom the pain, they had to accept it was real, and that was the hardest part. On the court and in the locker room, there were tearful hugs, lowered heads and so many red, watery eyes, especially among the three senior starters — Denzel Valentine, Matt Costello and Bryn Forbes.

“I just couldn’t believe it,” Valentine said. “I still can’t believe it. This seems like fake. I haven’t wrapped my mind around it yet.”

Asked what he felt as he walked off the court, Costello could barely raise his head to answer.

“I was like, what the heck just happened?” he said. “It was our defense. Yes, they hit some incredible shots, but we could’ve taken them away. Just sick. Just unbelief.”

3-point deluge

It was a combination of disbelief and unbelievable, and it will forever be part of Tournament lore. It didn’t have a dramatic finish, but that’s only because the Blue Raiders didn’t let the Spartans get close enough. If there’s any consolation to such a crushing defeat, the Spartans at least knew the other team earned it, nothing fluky about it.

The Blue Raiders shot 56 percent and were 11-for-19 on 3-pointers. And when the beleaguered Spartans defense tried to defend the deep shot, the Blue Raiders raced right around them. It seemed every one of Middle Tennessee’s players was capable of hitting a three, led by Giddy Potts and Reggie Upshaw. They were superbly poised, with a coach named Kermit Davis pulling the strings.

Kermit beat Izzo, one of the most acclaimed coaches in the country. Giddy beat Denzel, one of the most-acclaimed players in the country. It’s March. It’s Mad.

“This is the worst loss I’ve ever gone through, and it’s all because of how I feel about these guys,” Izzo said, his voice breaking again and again. “That’s what’s cool and cruel about this Tournament. You don’t get to have bad days. I think I feel worse because I can’t be mad. It’s not like we didn’t prepare or had distractions. All the things you hear about when Cinderella starts seeing a chink in the armor, it all happened.”

Let’s be clear on this — it was a remarkable performance by Middle Tennessee. And let’s be clear on this — the weight of the quest, the yearlong, maniacal desire to win the national championship seemed to wear the Spartans down. Maybe that’s an excuse, and they’re not using it. But to see Valentine so frazzled, it was as if he saw the dream slipping and over-reached every time he grabbed for it.

Michigan State trailed 15-2 five minutes into the game, clawed within one twice, but never took the lead. Middle Tennessee unleashed a brilliant array of defenses — trapping, then zoning, then man to man — and if Michigan State was going to lose in the Tournament, this was exactly the way it would happen, with a scrappy team attacking Valentine.

Costello was terrific on offense — 22 points, 9-for-10 shooting — but got lost on defense. Forbes had a similarly mixed performance. And as time drained away, Valentine tried to do more and more, and couldn’t do much. He finished with 13 points, 12 assists and six turnovers in what was probably his worst performance this season. After he missed his final shot, he threw his arms up and looked around in exasperation, as if someone was pulling a prank.

“It was very frustrating, but as a great player, you gotta learn how to play different defenses,” Valentine said. “As a player of the year (while making air quotes with his fingers), I gotta be able to withstand that and still play my game. … I didn’t come through, and I’ll remember that for the rest of my life.”

A driven team

The players were honorable in defeat, speaking from broken hearts and crushed hopes. Izzo was the most emotional, as this was one of a few teams in his career he truly felt could win it all. He said he didn’t regret the statement and believes it still, even as he resumes his hunt for that elusive second national title.

The Spartans reached the Final Four last year and were as driven as a team could possibly be. But here’s the cold truth about the Tournament — you can want it a lot, but it’s hard to want it more than the next guy. Just look at Middle Tennessee, which lost nine games to teams such as Louisiana Tech and Georgia State, and didn’t blink against mighty Michigan State.

“Whenever you see a team like Michigan State, and you hear a lot about them, you can’t let that psych you out,” Upshaw said. “I thought we had a couple of the greatest practices we’ve had all year. When you see people picking Michigan State before we even started to play, I think it adds a little motivation.”

That’s the way it looked, as the Blue Raiders answered every charge and the Spartans seemed to get more nervous as the minutes dwindled. Izzo was devastated, but also introspective afterward. He compared the pain to the first-round Tournament loss to 14th-seeded Weber State in 1995, when he was an assistant in Jud Heathcote’s final game.

More than 40 minutes after this one, Izzo still was trying to figure out exactly how to bid farewell to one of his favorite teams and its classy seniors.

“You know, as dumb as it sounds, I think it helps me to think of my father (Carl, who passed away in December),” Izzo said. “Hate the sorrow of losing him, but think about the memories of having him. I kind of tried to do that with my team. I’m gonna try to think of all the things they did for me, and appreciate who they are and what they are.”

One more time, Izzo’s eyes reddened and his voice broke. He’s never had a team quite like this, singularly focused and tightly driven. And he’s never had an ending like this, the toughest day of his coaching life.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/bobwojnowski

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