Wojo: In the end, Spartans beaten at their own game
Minneapolis — They squeezed everything they could out of this run, out of themselves, right until the end, when a rough and rugged opponent squeezed the last breath out of them.
In some ways, the Spartans helped create the monster that beat them, a Texas Tech team that models itself after Michigan State, and then in a stifling Final Four battle, broke the model. The Spartans missed shots they usually make, but also didn’t get shots they normally take, not against a brutally magnificent Texas Tech defense.
Michigan State looked in the mirror Saturday night and saw an image of itself, wearing red. The Red Raiders did what they’ve done all year, sticking and swatting and suffocating, and the Spartans ran out of answers. Their season ended in a 61-51 defeat, and they’ll lament lost opportunities because the national title was ripe to be won.
Texas Tech will face Virginia for the championship Monday night, and the Cavaliers are wholly vulnerable, as evidenced by their one-point escape against Auburn. The Spartans seemed poised to churn on after slicing a 13-point deficit to 52-51 with three minutes left, but couldn’t score again. This was no fluke, as Texas Tech’s toughness and tenacity were even better than advertised, and by the end, the Spartans looked worn out.
Matt McQuaid fired a shot just as his leg cramped up, and he airballed it. Down 54-51, he had an open 3-pointer to tie, and it rattled out. Cassius Winston’s path to the basket was consistently blocked, and he finished with 16 points but shot only 4-for-16 and collected only two assists. As connected as Michigan State (32-7) has been all season — from a Big Ten co-championship to a Big Ten Tournament championship to the Final Four — the Red Raiders snapped that connection.
“They deserved to beat us, they played better than us, they made some incredible shots late, they were the tougher team, they just were,” Izzo said. “I don’t think I did a good job for Cassius, poor kid, when we weren’t making any shots and they doubled him. It’s hard, especially when you lose not playing your best.”
Texas Tech’s second-ranked defense was holding opponents to a field-goal percentage of 36.9, and the Spartans couldn’t reach that. They shot 31.9 percent and Kenny Goins was scoreless (0-for-4). Even McQuaid, who shot them into the game with three 3-pointers, didn’t have much left down the stretch.
If this looked vaguely familiar, that’s because it was. Just 10 days ago, the Red Raiders harassed Michigan into a horrid offensive performance in a 63-44 thumping. The Spartans hung much closer and had a legitimate chance to win, but in the final minutes, Texas Tech’s star, Jarrett Culver, finally got loose for a couple huge baskets.
The Michigan State locker room afterward was quiet, but the players weren’t openly distraught. There were no tears, perhaps because they had no emotions left to give. They didn’t lose at the buzzer, which might have mitigated the pain, and they did complete a terrific season, if not completely satisfying.
“I’m stuck in the middle,” Winston said, forever composed. “I’m hurt we came up short, hurt we sent (seniors) Kenny and Quaido out like that, hurt that we could’ve played better and won a championship. At the same time, I can’t be mad. I feel like a lot of guys gave everything they had, even more than we expected out of them. You get that from guys, it’s hard to be mad, hard to be down.”
Players after player echoed that sentiment, and with a talented core of three starters — Winston, Xavier Tillman, Aaron Henry — set to return, this didn’t feel like a final chapter. It did leave Izzo short again of that elusive second national championship. In his eight Final Fours, he’s reached the title game only twice, winning in 2000.
That’s the lingering disappointment, but this actually was one of his finest coaching jobs, guiding a team that lost two starters for various lengths due to injury, and never got Nick Ward back to full strength. Izzo also didn’t seem down, but lamented what the Spartans just missed.
“You never can feel good because you never know if you’ll ever get back here, so I’m not gonna pretend to feel good tonight,” Izzo said. “But I bet you a couple days from now, I’m gonna be so damn proud of this team for not only what they accomplished, but how they did it, and the joy they brought. It was an incredible year just being around them.”
All they had
Two tough-minded teams grappled for two-plus sweaty hours in front of 72,711 fans in the Vikings’ football stadium, and it felt like a gridiron clash. Texas Tech’s shifting, churning defensive scheme was something to behold, and Chris Beard wasn’t bashful about his admiration for Michigan State and his coaching counterpart.
“I have so much respect for them,” Beard said. “Coach Izzo’s handshake and kind words to me after the game is something I’ll never forget in my career. We knew we weren’t going to out-tough Michigan State, but we wanted to try to match their toughness.”
They matched it tediously, tirelessly. At halftime, Texas Tech led 23-21, the lowest-scoring half in a national semifinal since Michigan State led Wisconsin 19-17 back in 2000.
This game was going to be decided by one or two short shooting streaks, and the Red Raiders had them. First, Matt Mooney got hot, hitting four 3-pointers to push Texas Tech to a 48-35 lead. Later, Culver was clutch.
In between, the Spartans kept grinding back, and the final crusher was when McQuaid’s potential tying 3 spun out with 1:50 left.
“I think I started running back a little early,” McQuaid said. “I thought it was good. It just didn’t go my way.”
His head was down but he didn’t cave to misery. The Spartans lost to a worthy foe with a wicked defense and a rising star as coach. The Red Raiders didn’t even have their shot-blocking star, Tariq Owens, for part of the game with a twisted ankle.
Both teams threw hay-makers (and quite a few bricks), and ultimately, the Spartans were beaten at their own game.
“They’re just aggressive on defense, real big and physical,” Goins said. “They did their thing and we just didn’t respond the right way. I guess you had to know at some point, all dreams have to end. But I’m still proud of my team for what we did this year.”
They looked like they could’ve done more, that’s the part that will gnaw at them. But as you saw them gasp to the end, perhaps they did as much as they could.