Niyo: Triple is heart-shaped relief for MSU's Valentine
East Lansing — Tom Izzo called it poetic justice, this being Valentine's Day and all.
But Denzel Valentine called it a relief, this being his team and all.
His game-winning shot Saturday was arguably the biggest moment of Michigan State's season to date, a fall-away 3-pointer with 3.2 seconds left to beat No. 23 Ohio State at the Breslin Center.
And for Valentine, it was a moment he simply had to have. Not just to bolster the Spartans' NCAA Tournament credentials, but to validate his own.
"I feel like a polar bear or something just jumped off my back," he laughed afterward. "It's just kind of a relief."
It's much more than that, potentially, for Michigan State, which improved to 17-8 overall and 8-4 in the Big Ten with a win it badly needed.
"What does that do for us now?" Izzo asked, and then answered, after he'd finally exited a giddy postgame locker room. "I don't know, but it gives me a shot in the arm."
It was Valentine's shot that did it, and though the Spartans' junior co-captain tried to downplay it at first — "It just happened to be me hitting the last shot," he said — his coach doesn't sound too interested in deferential treatment at this point.
A week ago, it had been Valentine deferring in the game's final minute against Illinois, telling Izzo to send Bryn Forbes to the line — instead of him — for a pair of technical-foul free throws with the Spartans trailing by two. Forbes made just one, and after Valentine's driving shot missed, the Illini put the game away.
Saturday, there was no timeout called to set up a play after Ohio State's Sam Thompson had tied it at 56 with 36 seconds to play. But there was also no doubt where the ball was going.
"I know last week I kind of let him down, and I wanted to make up for it," admitted Valentine, who finished with a game-high 17 points Saturday, including 5-of-9 shooting from three-point range. "I wanted the ball in my hands and I wanted revenge from last week."
So this wasn't just Valentine's Day. It was going to be Valentine's game, too. Because this is Valentine's team.
"It's not his decision anymore," Izzo said, when asked about his late-game strategy. "It's already been decided. The decision has been made. It's made ahead of time. So unless he has a broken arm, that's the decision. And if the whole world knows it, I really don't care."
Oh, he cares all right. But so does this team, and the way the Spartans scrapped and screamed Saturday, with the basketball alumni back for a mini-reunion — Draymond Green, Adreian Payne, Gary Harris, Andre Hutson and many more — it was music to Izzo's ears. Contentious huddles, defensive crouches and a crowd that brought the noise, too.
There was plenty to like about the Spartans' effort Saturday, whether it was a career-high 36 minutes from the freshman they call "Tum Tum" or the gut-check free throws Branden Dawson made to bring a smile to Izzo's face with 3:18 to play.
But when it was time to end it, it was time to turn to Valentine.
"He's earned the right," Izzo said, nodding.
And Saturday, that was more than just the right call. It was the winning one.