March 27, 2010
ST. LOUIS - After 37 minutes of play, six lead changes and seven ties, the scoreboard read 51-51.
A majority of the 26,377 of the fans in attendance at the Edward Jones Dome were on their feet, wearing purple and yellow, roaring for America's Cinderella as Korie Lucious dribbled the ball up the court.
It was uncharted waters for Northern Iowa. It was showtime for Michigan State.
The Spartans had been held scoreless for nearly four minutes as the Panthers tied the game on free throws. Looking for an answer on the offensive end, MSU head coach Tom Izzo called a timeout.
From that point forward, the Spartans controlled the game when it mattered most.
It began out of the timeout, with Raymar Morgan taking the ball down low on the block, inching his way closer to the basket, closer, backing his way in, until he muscled up a jump shot in the lane that went in. 53-51 Michigan State.
Northern Iowa was up next - and missed two key free throws.
Enter Lucious, the sophomore point guard starting his first NCAA Tournament game in the absence of first-team All-Big Ten member Kalin Lucas.
With the shot clock winding down, Lucious continued his clutch shooting from a week ago and channeled his inner Lucas, the hero of last year's Sweet 16 win after draining a game-winning shot against Kansas. Lucious, a Milwaukee native, looked so comfortable in this most pressure packed of situations, it was as if he was in a gym playing pickup ball back home. Starting at nearly midcourt, he drove to the right side of the basket, then after dribbling just past the free-throw line, he spun around and faded back, sinking the acrobatic jumpshot. His defender, Ali Farokhmanesh, who had made the game-winning shot against Kansas a week ago and currently graces the cover of Sports Illustrated, was in disbelief. 55-51 Michigan State.
"I just think it's from years of staying in the gym, just working out a lot with my dad and my friends and whoever else was in the gym with me, my teammates, just having the confidence in me to take that shot," said Lucious, who not only scored 10 points, but also collected a career-best six rebounds and dished out four assists while playing a career-high 39 minutes. "I saw the shot clock was going down and thank God it went in."
With 1:31 left, the Panthers had more than enough time to mount a comeback. Coming out of its own timeout, UNI set up a play that saw Adam Koch with an open look to the basket. Only one defender stood in his way. But it happened to be Delvon Roe, who on this night, was not going to let anything past him.
The embattled 6-8 sophomore, playing with a torn meniscus in his right knee, was grimacing in pain throughout the entire game. Along with last week against Maryland, he said afterwards it's the most pain his knee has ever been in.
Not on this play.
Roe leapt up and blocked Koch's shot to a disappointed Panther faithful. It was sheer will on Roe's part, who the entire night walked around the huddle during timeouts, wincing with a throbbing knee, just to keep himself loose.
"If I have to risk me getting healthier quicker, and it means it gives us a better chance of winning, I'm going to do whatever it takes to help us win," said Roe.
"I just can't believe what the guy is giving us," said Izzo. "I mean, every player knows it, the doctors know it. The guy has more courage than just about anybody I've ever coached."
"Obviously, he probably wasn't feeling great," said Draymond Green. "But he was a warrior, and I will tell anybody any day I'll take Delvon to war with me any day because he's a warrior. That's what he is and it shows out there on the court. I don't know if I could play with a torn meniscus, knock on wood, but that's a tough thing to do. And for him to produce like that and give us that lift today, you have to give him a lot of credit."
On MSU's ensuing possession, Northern Iowa elected to play defense rather than foul, and the shot clock was ticking away yet again without a play in sight for the Spartans. A confident Lucious drove to the lane again, but this time he fired and missed. No matter. Green was there for the board, tipping the ball into Chris Allen's hands, who put it back up for a layup. 57-51 Michigan State with 30 seconds to go.
Just like that, Michigan State had sealed its seventh trip to the Elite Eight in the past 12 years. The final two and a half minutes ended on an 8-1 MSU run.
Once again, the Spartans used a stellar defensive effort along with clutch shooting to prevail over a determined Northern Iowa team. MSU held the Panthers without a field goal the final 10 minutes of the game and shot 55 percent compared to 24 percent for UNI in the second half.
"I think certain times in the game, we just kind of huddled up and said it's winning time," said Summers, who led MSU with 19 points but was also praised for his defense by Izzo. "And pretty much what winning time means for us is we're going to get down and bite the floor on defense and everything's going to go through our defense."
The mental toughness for MSU has shone through in the NCAA Tournament, as the Green and White have won their three postseason games by a combined margin of 12 points.
"That's what's been fun about this team - they say things and know things before I have to say it to them," said Izzo. "It takes the fun away from me because I can't get on them, but at the same time, you really know they get it."
Following a disappointing first half, Michigan State came out focused out of the break, jumping the Panthers for a 16-5 run to take a 38-34 lead. The Spartans couldn't have looked any sharper, hitting eight of their first nine shots of the half. The spark was ignited by a thunderous putback slam by Roe, which was all the more inspiring considering his medical condition. Then, it was Summers' turn, who sank a 3 and turned around in front of MSU's bench to slap Izzo's hands. The run continued with another Roe layup, an Allen 3-pointer, a Morgan layup and a Summers alley-oop dunk.
"We knew we had to come out, get a great start to the half," said Green. "Delvon came out and gave us that boost we needed. And it was perfect for us. He gave the boost and Durrell knocked down a big 3 and it was rolling from there. And that's what we needed to do."
Although the run quickly changed the tide of the game, Northern Iowa wasn't here by accident. The Panthers fought back from a six-point deficit to take a two-point lead, 46-44, five minutes later. It would be their last lead of the game.
"It has taken a little longer than I would like, sure, but man, we won the Big Ten, we're playing in the Elite Eight with a chance to play in a Final Four, and if it gets any better than that, then I don't know where it would be."
- Tom Izzo
Summers' fourth and final 3-pointer with 7:27 on the clock gave MSU a 47-46 lead. After that point, MSU never trailed.
At the onset of the game, it seemed like Northern Iowa would never trail. The Panthers ran out to a quick 7-0 lead in the first three minutes.
But just when it seemed like the whole nation was cheering for Northern Iowa, the Spartans hit back-to-back 3-pointers courtesy of Lucious and Summers. MSU withstood the early surge, but the first half undoubtedly belonged to Northern Iowa. The best moment of the first half for Michigan State was when it ended, and when it did, Izzo spoke with Green from midcourt all the way back to the entrance tunnel.
"I told him `Hey, you told me you gotta grow up,'" said Izzo. "Because that's what he tells me every once in a while. And I told him he was right, right on the money, and as we walked off that floor, that he better do it in about the next 20 minutes. And, boy, to his credit, he not only did, but he talks to the team, apologizes. (We're) just starting to feel comfortable with each other."
And so yet again, more March memories are being made in Michigan State lore, game after game. A gritty performance against New Mexico State, followed by a buzzer-beater over Maryland, to a clutch three-minute finish vs. Northern Iowa. All with its leader, Kalin Lucas, on crutches and watching from the sideline. Lucas' jersey hung in the locker room on Friday, symbolizing everything this team has been through this season.
"One thing Day-Day did say at halftime was that it wasn't last week we were playing for him (Kalin), we're playing for him until we're done," said Izzo.
The veteran coach also mentioned a turning point in his players' mindset of being a "better teammate."
"When Kalin Lucas went down at halftime of the Maryland game, I think it's one of those moments that I'll remember - that will be my memory for this year's team," said Izzo. "Because our whole team, I saw guys with different emotion that I haven't seen. I saw Kalin with different emotion that I haven't seen. And it's kind of refreshing. Sometimes it seems like we don't wear emotions on our sleeve enough, we're always too cool and casual. And it felt good to watch guys cry again or watch guys feel bad or watch guys hug a guy or all the things that I believe championship teams have."
The Spartans will be making their seventh Elite Eight appearance under Izzo on Sunday. Izzo's first was in this same building, in 1999 against Kentucky, resulting in MSU's first Final Four since 1979. Michigan State is hoping for things to come full circle. After all, the Final Four is being held in Indianapolis - where MSU won the national championship in 2000.
"It has taken a little longer than I would like, sure," said Izzo, "but man, we won the Big Ten, we're playing in the Elite Eight with a chance to play in a Final Four, and if it gets any better than that, then I don't know where it would be."