Perfectly flawed MSU finds its way back
ST. LOUIS -- In a tournament of sweaty palms and scary moments for Michigan State fans, it was fitting that a trip to the Final Four would come down to one last dramatic dash downcourt.
Here came the Spartans, score tied, time dwindling, everyone in the Edward Jones Dome on their feet. In other words, same-old, same-old.They needed a lane violation to outlast New Mexico State by three. A buzzer-beater to beat Maryland by two. Then came a veritable blowout of Northern Iowa by all of seven. And now, resilient Tennessee had Michigan State deadlocked at 69 in a March classic -- but a Scotty Hopson missed free throw gave the Spartans the last chance as the clock ticked under 10 seconds. Korie Lucious brought the ball upcourt with a voice nagging at him from behind. It was Draymond Green, the loquacious power forward for the Spartans, calling for the ball. During a timeout just before the Hopson miss, Green had lobbied coach Tom Izzo for a chance to go one-on-one from the top of the key with the last possession. "I don't think he felt quite comfortable with that," Green wryly reported. "So he drew up another play." Didn't matter what was drawn up. Green wanted the ball. And got the ball, about 25 feet out. And just about the time you expected him to launch a 3-pointer, the smartest player in college basketball instead whipped a one-handed pass inside to an open Raymar Morgan. "We didn't get back defensively," Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said. "We didn't get matched up properly." Morgan was keenly aware of that fact, waving his hands for the ball. "I saw him, but if he wouldn't have waved his hands, I probably would have shot the ball," Green said. Instead, he let Morgan finish this thing. Morgan pump-faked and got two Volunteers in the air, then went up into contact and was fouled with 1.8 seconds left by J.P. Prince -- who vigorously disputed committing a foul.
Durrell Summers has displayed tantalizing glimpses of his ability. His talent was never in question, it was consistency that was in short supply. Now he's fulfilling on his promise on the biggest stage at the time when Michigan State needs it most. Eamonn Brennan
Morgan made the first free throw, then intentionally missed the second. And after a Tennessee timeout, Prince missed a half-court heave and Michigan State had won 70-69, somehow wandering into yet another Final Four.Sparty's total margin of victory this NCAA tourney: 13 points. Since the field was expanded to 64 teams in 1985, no team has ever won its first four games by a smaller amount. And this was not a murderers' row of opponents, if you go by seeding. Michigan State beat teams seeded 12th, fourth, ninth and sixth. So, no, this has not been a dominant run by the Spartans. But it has been an incredible run -- maybe Izzo's finest work in a career full of great coaching. How on Earth did this Michigan State team -- dysfunctional at times, and injury-riddled now -- join the five other Izzo-coached teams to make a Final Four? "I'm proud of these guys," Izzo said. "I just can't tell you what we've been through with the injuries."
I can tell you: Leading scorer Kalin Lucas watched this game in a sweat suit, his season over after tearing an Achilles tendon in the Maryland game. Delvon Roe gritted his way through 20 minutes of playing time on a knee with a torn meniscus. Chris Allen had eight points and two assists despite a sprained arch in his right foot.Given all that, you hardly expected Michigan State to be able to summon a great -- not merely good -- performance. But they did, because they had to. It took greatness to beat Tennessee on Sunday.
Neither team ever led by double digits, and for 39 minutes and 34 seconds, this was no more than a two-possession game either way. The tension was unrelenting. On a couple of occasions in the heat of the battle, Izzo even caught himself saying, "God, this is a hell of a game."It was from the very start. The first 13 possessions of the game resulted in points. The score was 16-16 after just five torrid minutes, and we were on pace for a game played in the 120s. The Volunteers, a 32 percent 3-point shooting team, shot like the Lakers in the first half -- they knocked down their first six 3s. The Spartans counterpunched by doing what they always do: crashing the glass and scoring off offensive rebounds. "I thought the big key for us was that we weathered the storm," Izzo said. "We could say in the huddles, 'OK, they're going to cool off. It's going to happen.'" And it did. Tennessee made just one 3 the rest of the way, as a dazzling offensive game in the first half became a tenacious defensive game in the second. That is advantage Michigan State. "Bite the floor" defense was guard Durrell Summers' term for it Friday night, and there was a lot of floor-biting going on in the final minutes. The Spartans made eight steals and blocked eight shots, simply walling off the interior in the game's latter stages. There were just two made field goals in the last 3:55, and Summers made the bigger of the two. His 3-pointer with 2:47 to play gave Michigan State a 69-66 lead. Summers scored 21 points Sunday on only 10 field goal attempts. In this tournament, he's scored 80 points on 54 shots, snapping out of a late-season malaise. He is emblematic of this team's NCAA turnaround. Summers turned in a 1-for-5, four-point stink bomb in the Big Ten tourney loss to Minnesota, and got an earful from his teammates after that game. Now he's the Midwest Regional Most Outstanding Player. That's just what Tom Izzo teams seem to do in March. Players like Durrell Summers morph into heroes at just the right time. Players like Draymond Green make the great pass at the perfect moment. And a flawed team just keeps on winning the close ones.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.