March 29, 2010
ST. LOUIS - Durrell Summers stood atop the ladder, trimming a piece of net away from the rim. Just minutes before, he was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Midwest Regional following Michigan State's thrilling 70-69 victory over Tennessee. The hot-shooting junior from Detroit was the man of the moment. But the first piece he cut wasn't for him. It was for a teammate.
Summers looked down from his perch and passed along the clipping to his longtime friend and captain Kalin Lucas, who was on crutches and has served as a rallying point of inspiration for the team following his season-ending Achilles injury against Maryland.
One-by-one, all of the players took their turn up the ladder, until there was a single thread holding up the bulk of the net. This prime piece of history is usually reserved for the coach.
In a move that will surely make this year's "One Shining Moment" highlight, the entire team lifted up Lucas as he tugged away the remainder of the net and promptly placed it around his neck.
"I don't even know what to say - I'm pretty much speechless right now," said Lucas in the locker room after the game.
The moment symbolized what Izzo had been preaching all season: be a better teammate.
And so with Michigan State's leading scorer being held in the air in the arms of teammates, Coach Tom Izzo smiled and clapped his hands, embracing a moment he wasn't sure he would see with this year's team, although he knew it was more than possible. He had once again orchestrated an improbable March run, securing the program's sixth Final Four bid in 12 years, a feat only Duke and North Carolina have accomplished since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985.
"Give credit where credit is due: two sets of people," Izzo said to the crowd after receiving the Midwest Region trophy. "The ones up here (on the podium), and the ones right there (pointing toward the fans)."
Each Final Four run is unique and has its own story. The classic that unfolded Sunday in St. Louis between the Spartans and Volunteers will be told for years to come, taking its place as one of the top games in MSU history.
As close games usually go, it was decided in the final seconds, this time on free throws. With the score tied at 69 and 1.8 seconds remaining in the game, senior Raymar Morgan stepped up to the free-throw line for two shots and a Final Four berth on the line.
Twenty six seconds earlier on the clock, Korie Lucious had missed the front end of a 1-and-1 as MSU clung to a 69-68 lead.
Tennessee's Scotty Hopson then had his own chance to be the hero of the Volunteer State. After getting fouled by Draymond Green with 11 seconds left, Hopson netted his first free throw. Tie game. Timeout MSU.
The tension that had been boiling since the tip was nearly unbearable by the time Hopson trotted back for his second attempt. Ten ties. Nine lead changes. The entertaining and exhilarating contest got off to a blistering start as both teams scored on 13 of the first 14 possessions of the game - and they hadn't looked back since.
Searching for its first-ever Final Four bid, Tennessee was a free throw away.
Hopson's second try could've been the defining moment in Tennessee basketball history. Instead, it bounced off the rim and into the hands of Lucious, who quickly dribbled the ball up the court as the precious final seconds ticked by. Green trailed Lucious down the court, yelling his name, and finally got the ball at the top of the key. But rather than take a difficult shot, Green found a wide-open Morgan down on the block. Morgan paused, pump-faked, then got fouled.
Now, it was Morgan's turn at the line.
"No pressure," Morgan said calmly following the game. "Day-Day (Draymond) came to me before the free throw and said, `no pressure.' And I said, `I know.'"
Nope, none at all.
The Canton, Ohio, native had passed Morris Peterson earlier in the game to move into 10th all-time at MSU in scoring, and Morgan ranks in the top 10 in the school record books in several other statistical categories. But his upcoming shot would perhaps define him, his legacy. With everything on the line, Morgan made it look easy.
"I was really confident that I was just going to the line, and I felt extremely comfortable," he said on making possibly the biggest free throw in school history. "I just took my time, took a couple of deep breaths, and knocked it down."
He missed the second as part of Izzo's strategy coming out of a timeout, and Tennessee couldn't muster up a halfcourt shot at the end.
The Spartans were going back to the Final Four for the second straight season. And it was doing so by winning the close games. MSU's four wins came by a combined 13 points - the fewest margin of any Final Four team since the 64-team field began in 1985.
"Everybody on this team came out, and nothing was going to hold us down, whether it be knee injuries, foot injuries, shoulder injuries, it doesn't matter, we were going to find a way to win this game, and that's what we did," said a banged up Delvon Roe, who is playing with a torn meniscus in his right knee.
The post-game celebration was filled with emotional moments. Izzo hugged Lucas, hugged Magic Johnson, hugged anyone he could find. With the team on the podium at center court waiting for the trophy presentation to begin, Spartan fans chanted, "Kalin Lucas, Kalin Lucas." Almost seamlessly, it transitioned into "Korie Lucious, Korie Lucious." Lucious' eyes welled up on him. Izzo thanked his team and the fans, and it was on to the nets.
With nowhere else on the court to go after the nets were cut down, the Spartans made a lap around the stands to thank all of the fans, similar to their sendoff to the Izzone after home games, before running back into the locker room.
And don't worry, Summers did manage to clip his own strand of nylon - after all, he averaged 20 points during the region's four games and made numerous clutch 3-pointers - amid cheers from Spartans fans all across the Edward Jones Dome. In MSU's last game before the NCAA Tournament, he had been benched in the second half during the Big Ten Tournament. Two weeks later, he was smiling as the region's best player, scissors in hand, on top of a ladder next to a chopped up net - the best possible place to be in March.
"I think it was a matter of me looking in the mirror, seeing what Coach was asking of me, and him knowing I had the ability to do it," Summers said. "I just had to find a way to do it."
On the 10-year anniversary of the 2000 National Championship, Michigan State will now face Butler in the 2010 Final Four on April 3 in Indianapolis - a city in which MSU has never lost an NCAA Tournament game.