March 29, 2014
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
NEW YORK - There's something to be said about having a track record, especially one as extensive as Michigan State's under 19-year head coach Tom Izzo.
Reference after reference following Friday night's hard-fought 61-59 East Regional semifinal victory against top-seeded Virginia in the NCAA Tournament at storied Madison Square Garden harkened back to other times and events in Spartan history, both distant and recent.
"Survive and advance was during the year, not just the NCAA Tournament," Izzo said with a sigh of relief after advancing to the Elite Eight for the eighth time and first since 2010. "We were just trying to figure different ways to win a game."
How appropriate it was, therefore, for the Spartans to use the experience of juggling personnel due to injuries and illness for much of the season, to find a way to manufacture a victory against the Cavaliers, who were said to play the best defense of all 68 tournament teams.
"Our defense, the last six games now, has been phenomenal," Izzo said. "I think only one team shot above 40 percent and that's a big plus for us. That's getting back to who we are and I think it was important because we kind of lost that during the year.
"I thought tonight our defense was pretty good, and in the halfcourt was outstanding."
Defense was the hallmark of each of Izzo's six Final Four teams, including his National Champions in 2000, and the Spartans proved the time-tested formula is still a winner by holding Virginia to 20-for-57 shooting from the floor (35.1 percent). Although the Cavaliers wiped out Michigan State's four-point halftime lead with a pair of second-half-opening layups, they scored seven of their next nine points on free throws while forging a 40-36 lead and didn't get their fourth basket until there was only six minutes remaining.
"That was one of the toughest games I've ever played in," Izzo said. "It reminded me of our Iowa State game (14) years ago. It was a fistfight, every possession mattered, and every part of that game mattered."
Branden Dawson, whose Swiss Army knife-style of scoring a game-high 24 points in a variety of ways against the Cavaliers, was 7 years old when the Spartans surrendered a three-point halftime lead and trailed the Cyclones by nine late in the second half before pulling out a 75-64 victory at The Palace of Auburn Hills to advance to the Final Four. But, the die Michigan State cast back then still works.
"Coming into this game, coach told us that we better be ready for a dogfight," Dawson said. "That's what it was. When they went on that run, we just never lost our poise. I would say that's top-five (among defenses MSU faced this season).
"Our coaches, our managers, they do a great job of preparing us for any team. We watched a lot of film and Coach (Izzo); he's been in this position plenty of times so we were definitely ready for it."
Virginia, which all but conceded the offensive glass in its previous tournament games - it didn't even have an offensive rebound against Coastal Carolina - crossed MSU up by pulling down 14 of its missed shots. The Spartans were outrebounded by a very un-Izzo-like 35-32 margin, but it wasn't because they backed down.
"As far as attacking the boards and being aggressive, that was a football game out there," said back-up point guard Travis Trice, the latest of a long line of Spartans making the gridiron comparison Izzo loves so much. "They're a great team, they're physical, they're aggressive and we had to match that."
Trice demonstrated mental toughness for the second straight game. Just as he made a nervy 3-point field goal to put MSU ahead to stay against Harvard in the Round of 32, he pulled up for the triple that gave the Spartans their only points in transition and a 43-40 lead against Virginia. Michigan State would hold the lead for the final 9:08.
It was the advice of Mateen Cleaves, whose scoring average dropped every year of his career until it ended with the national title, resounding in the mind of Keith Appling, who stayed the course while dealing with a wrist injury earlier in the season and its aftereffects. He missed his first two shots against the Cavaliers, including a layup, but scored on a critical drive and left-handed scoop to increase the lead to 47-42 just before the shot clock expired.
It's safe to say Appling was never more content to finish a game with just two points.
"Winning is the most important thing, especially for my position," he said echoing Cleaves. "It's my job to get all the other guys involved, and if I hit a couple baskets, that's a plus, but my job is to run the team and make sure we win."
With regard to his biggest basket of the tournament, Appling added, "I just saw an opening, and it was the first one I saw all night because they did such a great job of packing it in and not allowing us to penetrate. I ended up way out of bounds, almost in the nickel seats, but it's all good. That's just a part of basketball."
Then there's the case of senior power forward Adreian Payne, who scored seven of Michigan State's first 10 points and didn't score again until he had nine of MSU's final 25 points in the last 10:24 of the game.
After Virginia re-tied the game, 51-51, Payne passed up an open 3-pointer that drew Izzo's ire. The next time he got an open look, it was like borrowing another page from that Iowa State game. However, instead of Morris Peterson calling for a "screen and rescreen" during a timeout, Payne and Appling improvised by running the play twice.
"We were trying to pick-and-pop Adreian or get Keith driving to the hole and kicking it out to Gary (Harris)," Izzo said. "He came off the (screen) once and then he came off it the second time, and boy, he hit (Payne). It was a great play, he got it in there and tossed it back and A.P. hit the shot."
When asked what Izzo said to him about double-clutching on the first three, Payne said, "Why didn't I shoot the first one?" Said Izzo, "Something like that, anyway."
"Yeah, it was something like that," said Payne, keeping the details confidential. "I said it was my bad. I definitely should have shot it. I didn't read it right. So I said I'm going to knock the next one down if I get it, and that's what I did."
Michigan State left the game a little bloodied, but no worse for wear. The Spartans found a way to win even though Harris, matched his season-low with six points on 2-for-5 shooting. Getting him more shots will be a priority in Sunday's regional championship game against Connecticut, Izzo promised.
But even Harris, who was hobbled by foul trouble, wasn't dismayed.
"I was frustrated with the fouls, not my offensive play because we were figuring out ways to score baskets," he said. "That's one of the positives of playing like a team like this. Anybody can score on any given day. A.P. and Branden have been huge for us in this tournament and not scoring points isn't that frustrating to me, it's when I have to sit out."
It's often said that everything old is new again, and that was confirmed by the way MSU fought tooth and nail with Virginia, which is coached by Tony Bennett, just as Izzo's Spartans did against Wisconsin, when it was coach by Bennett's father, Dick, back at the turn of the century.
"I feel we're pretty much built for that," Appling said. "And why we were able to handle it so well."