Niyo: 'Three Amigos' lead MSU -- fitfully

John Niyo
The Detroit News
The Spartans bench erupts as the Buckeyes are forced to call a timeout.

Chicago — Tom Izzo affectionately called them his Three Amigos.

And though at times they make him want to eat his sombrero, they're needed now, more than ever.

Friday night, it showed, though not all at once, as Michigan State's veteran leaders — Travis Trice, Branden Dawson and Denzel Valentine — took turns carrying the Spartans in a 76-67 victory over Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals at United Center.

"Each one of our Three Amigos here that need to play well had stretches where they were unbelievable," Izzo said, "and that's why you win games."

Especially games in March, when the tournaments have a tendency to turn stomachs and the games find a way to turn coaches into basket cases, as both Izzo and Ohio State's Thad Matta came unglued at times Friday night.

Matta called it "maybe the most physical game I've ever coached in in the Big Ten," and that didn't even take into account all the verbal abuse the officials took from the two coaches. Matta spent nearly an entire timeout in the first half screaming at Gene Steratore. Izzo directed most of his venom at Kelly Pfeifer.

Asked later to share his thoughts on the refs, Matta balked, "Honestly, I probably better be careful, because I'm not very happy right now with what I saw. I hadn't seen anything like that."

Taking charge

What he saw looked more like a hockey game at times, with bodies crashing and shots clanging off glass and iron. In one 6-minute span in the second half, the teams were a combined 3-for-21 from the field.

But then came a pivotal sequence, as the Spartans blocked a pair of shots — first Matt Costello, then Dawson — to create a run-out that ended with a dunk for Dawson and a double-digit lead.

That's when Trice took over. He hit consecutive threes, then added a fast-break layup to make it a 14-point lead with 9:07 left.

Earlier, it was Valentine leading the charge. He had a hand in 24 first-half points — 12 of his own, and a dozen more on five assists — as the Spartans quickly doubled up the Buckeyes.

Valentine (23 points) and Dawson (14 points) both flirted with triple-double territory Friday, each finishing with eight rebounds and seven assists. Trice added 18 points of his own.

"We're definitely putting pressure on ourselves, because we've been through this before," Trice said. "We know we have to carry the young guys."

Good times, bad times

Izzo knows it, too, though. And he knows he saw his team cough up another big lead — the Buckeyes cut a 17-point lead to five with 3:07 to play — with a little help from his amigos. Turnovers by Trice and Valentine started Ohio State's late run, and both guards missed front-end free throws as the tension built.

"We have our moments when I think we're really good," Izzo said. "There were times out there I thought, 'Wow.' We were moving the ball, and that ball was moving about as good as I've seen it all year.

"But we still have our times, and it's kind of inexcusable, some of the mistakes we made. So I'm not ready to canonize anybody yet. I mean that sincerely. Because there were some really, really good things we did. But there were some boneheaded mistakes we made. And we just can't do that if we want to advance in this thing, and advance next week."

So what does he do about that? Well, he calls out his leaders by name. Probably even calls them some unprintable names, for that matter.

But mostly he just reminds them who they're supposed to be.

"That's what you do: You rely on your upperclassmen," Izzo said. "I know I do."

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