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Friday, March 28, 2003
Updated: March 29, 3:15 AM ET

Izzo performing more March 'Magic'

By Seth Wickersham
ESPN The Magazine

SAN ANTONIO -- He watched the game, sitting, hunched over, leaning to the side so that his massive legs could have some breathing room.

He munched on popcorn. He clapped to "Let's go State!" When someone walked past him, he ducked and dodged around, just like he used to when driving the lane searching for space to pass, his eyes looking past a body to see others.

Finally, with his Michigan State leading Maryland 60-58 with 4.7 seconds to go, Magic Johnson, the proud owner of the brightest and best smile in sports history, stood and awaited the Spartans' final fate.

He didn't watch Terps star guard Steve Blake frantically weave up court; instead he looked at who Blake might pass to. But when Blake's 3-pointer bounced foul, Johnson pumped his fist.

Michigan State is in the Elite Eight. Again. With a group of youngsters. Again.

After the game, coach Tom Izzo, in what is his March Motto, said, "This is about survival."

While the college-hoops watching world gushes over Roy Williams, Coach K, Gary Williams and Lute Olson, someone had better remember to mention the feisty, screaming, ever-stomping Izzo. In the past four years, Izzo can match March success with any of them.

Izzo, in his eighth year in East Lansing, doesn't get the credit he deserves for being one of the great Spring Break-time coaches of his era. This was State's fifth Sweet 16 in six years. Three times, in 1999, 2000, and 2001, Izzo coached a group of mostly leftover recruits to the Final Four, winning it all in 2000.

Starting one freshman, three sophomores, and a senior who, despite boasting a body that would make Shannon Sharpe jealous, has never averaged more than 7.7 points a game, Michigan State didn't blink at the defending champs. In typical Michigan State fashion, it was tough to pick Friday night's best Spartan.

Was it Alan Anderson? He had the best stats-4-for-8, 10 points, several key baskets to built the Spartans' 54-40 second-half lead.

But how about Al Anagonye? He numbers are as depressing as your tax returns but still helped hold Maryland's hot starting frontcourt of Tahj Holden and Ryan Randle to a combined 4-of-17 shooting with seven turnovers.

Throw in Paul Davis, too. The game-winning drive and score earn at least a mention.

Typical Michigan State, a blur to find a highlight, but easy to find the winning edge: Izzo.

Most thought MSU's little Sweet 16 run was a swell story but on its way to an end. Even Izzo, on Thursday, said, "I hope it'll be a good game."

His hope was granted. The Spartans raced to an early lead and never looked back -- well, for 32 minutes at least.

"We had a stretch in the half where we played well and defended well," Izzo said. "We did all the things we had to do for 32 minutes."

And then? Near disaster. Maryland flicked a switch, and turned a 14-point hole around.

The Terps' trap had State looking like it was trying to pass through a forest.

"We got careless with the ball," Anderson said. "They got real hungry and smelled blood."

And, all of a sudden, it was: Champs 55, Kids 54.

MSU was running and gunning and acting like that youthful group that was once 11-8, only 12-6 in the Big Ten, but one of only two teams to beat Kentucky (yes, that Kentucky). But a funny thing happened: Michigan State wouldn't wilt.

A make by Davis put MSU ahead 56-55. Trailing 58-56, Davis dunked. Finally, with 16.5 seconds left, Davis drove baseline, leapt, and somehow kissed it home. Seconds later Blake missed a game-winning three.

Folks in green jumped. Folks in red sank. Sportswriters deleted their ledes.

And, seven rows behind the State bench, Magic smiled.

Before the game he spoke to the team at the hotel, reminding them that games like this make for a lifetime of memories. You don't get many chances like this, he said. Take advantage.

Michigan State has like few thought it could, beating Florida in Florida and dethroning the champs. Now it gets Texas in Texas with a trip to the Big Easy on the line.

Nothing, however, has been easy for MSU.

Seth Wickersham is a writer for ESPN The Magazine.



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