Spartans dig themselves too big a hole
INDIANAPOLIS -- The Michigan State Spartans went down Tuesday the way they've played all season. The way they've played all tournament. Giving everything they had. And never giving up.
But in the end, Baylor was simply better. Too many athletes. Too many answers.
"Baylor played super, and we played average," Michigan State coach Joanne P. McCallie said after Baylor's NCAA title-winning 84-62 victory at the RCA Dome. "And you really can't do that at this level, that's just the bottom line."
The first half followed what has become a familiar pattern for the Spartans -- falling behind. Thanks largely to five backbreaking 3-pointers from Baylor super-sub Emily Niemann, Michigan State trailed by as many as 19 points. But the Spartans rallied, in characteristic fashion, cutting the lead to nine before trailing by 12 at the half.
The Spartans then cut the deficit to nine again early in the second half, and had reason to feel somewhat confident -- after all, they'd trailed at halftime in their previous three games in this tournament, including storming back from 16 down in the second half to stun Tennessee two nights ago. But Baylor was simply too good to let that happen.
Niemann's first-half treys were humongous. But the two players that devastated Michigan State were the forward combo of Sophia Young and Steffanie Blackmon, who teamed up for 48 points and 16 rebounds. Michigan State also features a strong frontline with Liz Shimek and Kelli Roehrig -- but those two were thoroughly dominated, finishing with only 15 points and 10 rebounds between them.
"I just thought they were beautiful," McCallie said of Baylor's inside tandem. "I caught myself watching them on occasion and said I better stop that and get back to coaching the game."
What she was watching was a total mismatch athletically. Young and Blackmon denied their counterparts hardly any easy baskets or open looks. They made them work hard for even the paltry stats they produced. And on offense, Young and Blackmon hit some tough jumpers in the first half, and simply wore down Michigan State in the second half, eventually getting layup after layup down the stretch.
But rebounding was the biggest key to the game. The final totals? Baylor 45, Michigan State 22 (and 16 to three on the offensive glass).
"We've played a lot of great post players," Shimek said. "I guess it just came down to rebounding. We didn't win offensive rebounding and that's not Michigan State basketball ... they kept getting open looks and second-chance points, and that's pretty much it."
And the Spartans couldn't counter offensively with their trademark balance. On the season, Michigan State had four players average double-figures in scoring. And they were 22-0 when they had four players score in double-digits in a game. Tuesday night, they only had two -- gritty guards Kristin Haynie and Lindsay Bowen -- and that simply wasn't enough.
But what was most impressive -- besides Baylor's performance, of course -- was the fight the Spartans showed throughout the game. Sure, the final score was rather lopsided, and Michigan State never really threatened after the beginning of the second half. But the Spartans also never let the margin get too out of hand, to 30 or 40 points, which it could have easily risen to on this night.
Haynie and Bowen, in particular, continued to attack the basket, and get to the free-throw line, to keep things somewhat respectable. But if you watched the body language of the entire Michigan State team throughout the game, regardless of the score and including the second half, you'd have never known the Spartans were trailing by so much. They continued to huddle. They continued to clap their hands. They continued to encourage one another. They never hung their heads.
The Spartans kept fighting ... until the very bitter end.
Sure, the scene in their locker room after the game was pretty grim. Plenty of sniffles, and tears, and lots of red puffy eyes. That should come as no surprise. But what's more telling were their final moments on the court.
As Baylor dribbled out the clock, the five Spartans on the floor continued to defend, while the rest of their teammates stood in front of their bench. And when the final horn sounded, and explosions went off, and multicolored streamers came flying down from the rafters, the Michigan State team that held hands during the national anthem huddled for one final time at their end of the floor.
"We just looked at each other, and said, 'Let's run off the floor,' " said Haynie.
And so they did. Run, not walk, off the floor.
There's plenty of hope for the future with this team, despite the fact they'll be losing a couple of key players. And there's plenty to be proud about. This is a program that won 33 games, when they'd never won more than 23 before. This is a team that went to the national championship game, after never getting past the second round.
The Spartans ran off the floor like champions.
And in their own way, they are.
Kieran Darcy writes for ESPN The Magazine.
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