March 20, 2005
By JIMMY GOLEN
AP Sports Writer
WORCESTER, Mass. (AP) - An afterthought during the regular season and sentimental second choice in the NCAAs, Michigan State finally is stepping out of the shadows.
The Spartans advanced to the Austin Regional semifinals on Sunday with a 72-61 victory over 13th-seeded Vermont, the plucky school with the wacky coach that upset Syracuse for its first NCAA tournament victory. Michigan State, which finished second to top-ranked Illinois in the Big Ten, reached the round of 16 for the sixth time in eight years.
"I'm glad it's over," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "I thought, with the entire state and nation pulling for them, it would be tough to overcome. I tell you, if I wasn't playing against them, I'd be pulling for them."
Maurice Ager scored 19 points and Paul Davis had 11 points and 14 rebounds for Michigan State (24-6). Izzo improved to 21-6 in the tournament - a winning percentage second among active coaches to Duke's Mike Krzyzewski - and set the Spartans up for a possible matchup with the Blue Devils in Austin; Duke played Mississippi State later Sunday.
"You know your program has come a long way when you lose to Michigan State and you're crushed," said Vermont coach Tom Brennan, who had announced he would retire after the season. "It was the greatest ride that I could ever, ever have had. You know you're in a very special place when your realities outweigh your dreams. And that's where I am."
The crowd was heavily tilted toward Vermont (25-7), and Brennan's sense of humor won over many of the rest. But star Taylor Coppenrath went into a shooting slump - making 5-of-23 shots - and Michigan State proved too fast in transition for the America East champions.
Coppenrath, a three-time America East player of the year, leaves as Vermont's second-leading scorer after scoring 16 points with 14 rebounds. But 10 of the boards were on offense and many of those came on his own misses.
T.J. Sorrentine, who won the conference's top award the other year, scored 26 but made just 6 of 15 shots from 3-point range; he topped the 2,000-point mark in the game and is the third most prolific scorer in school history. Germain Mopa Njila, who averaged six points but had 20 in the first-round victory, did not score on Sunday.
"In the long run, we'll be looking at this as a great thing. But we all feel now that this is kind of an opportunity given away," Vermont center Martin Klimes said. "We really wanted to go to the Sweet 16. We felt like we had a chance, but in the end we just couldn't handle them."
With a berth in the round of 16, Michigan State keeps pace with Illinois, which finished 33-1 in the regular season and won the Big Ten title. The Spartans finished second, going 13-2 in the league.
But Michigan State lost to Iowa in the first round of the conference tournament when Alan Anderson, the league's top free throw shooter, missed two with 7 seconds left and a chance to tie the game. The school's seniors, who inherited a program that had won four consecutive Big Ten titles and a national championship, did not win the conference even once.
Now they have a chance to make up for that.
Sorrentine hit consecutive 3-pointers to give Vermont a 6-2 lead and then scored the Cats' last 10 points of the first half, but he could have used some help.
Sorrentine's layup gave Vermont a 28-27 lead with 2:57 left in the half, then Michigan State went on an 8-0 run before the break; Davis made the first basket of the second half to make it 10 in a row and give the Spartans a 37-28 lead.
Michigan State led by as many as 14 points, and Vermont made its last best run to cut it to 62-53 on Sorrentine's 3-pointer with 4:39 left. But Davis made a jumper and then Drew Naymick dunked to extend the lead to double digits; by the time Vermont closed within 10 again, there were just 73 seconds left.
After Coppenrath missed three times under the basket with 30 seconds left, Davis grabbed the rebound and Michigan State dribbled out the clock. Even before the buzzer, the teams shook hands on the court and the Vermont players hugged on the bench.
Brennan, who has said he is retiring after leading the school to its only three NCAA berths, shook hands with the Spartans players and coaches and walked right off the court to the locker room. Coppenrath gave a final, exhausted wave to the Vermont fans, who were still cheering "U-V-M!" and "Thank you, Tom!" long after the game was over.