Spartans fall short of Final Four goal

Michigan State can't quite manage enough to get by UConn as seniors Final Four streak ends Sunday at Madison Square Garden.

The goal was set long ago.

Back before the season got underway during preseason practices, the talk was clear. Michigan State felt it was a Final Four team.

But one game short of the goal, whatever magic Michigan State seems to have around in March ran out Sunday night at Madison Square Garden.

The Spartans came in winning six straight postseason games, many convincingly, but Connecticut proved to be too much to handle in a 60-54 win.

The careers of Keith Appling and Adreian Payne ended as the first four-year players to never reach a Final Four while playing for Tom Izzo.

"I'm disappointed because I know you don't get many opportunities to do this," Izzo said. "This was a special group because of what they went through. Why? I will beat myself up for a week on why we laid an egg."

It was a stunning end to a season which carried much-deserved national hype when it began before enduring various injuries -- and then before coming back together healthy and so close to making the goal a reality.

"The season's over," sophomore Gary Harris said. "Going to play in the Final Four, that's what we have been talking about since the beginning and to get this close and be up in the second half by nine points, it's tough right now. But we didn't do the things necessary for us to win, so it's all on us."

Harris led the Spartans with 22 points, while Payne had 13 points. Appling had just two and his career ended with 30.6 seconds left. With Michigan State down 53-51, he was whistled for his fifth foul as UConn guard Shabazz Napier shot 3-pointer. The senior point guard said he knew Napier would shoot from film study, but was surprised at the call.

"I thought I had all ball, but the refs didn't think so," Appling said. "I honestly didn't think they would make a call like that late in the game."

Napier knocked down all three free throws, essentially sealing the game for the Huskies and sending the Spartans home.

But it was a big start from the Huskies that put Michigan State on its heels early. A 12-2 lead less than five minutes in had a mostly UConn crowd buzzing inside Madison Square Garden as the Spartans turned over the ball three times.

"That's what we get if we come out like that," sophomore Denzel Valentine said. "We have to have a different mindset if we want to get to a Final Four."

Michigan State came fighting back, though. Appling and Payne checked back into the game at the 15:12 mark of the first half and MSU closed the half on a 23-9 run.

Payne knocked down a pair of 3s and Harris followed with a pair of transition 3s late in the half and Michigan State took a halftime lead of 25-21. Harris had 12 points in the first half and hit a jumper to open the second half, which Payne followed with a 3 and the Spartans led by nine, but then the wheels came off.

"We just made too many mistakes at that point in the game and we were up nine," Appling said. "All we had to do was run our offense and try to get easy baskets, but we made a couple key turnovers and they capitalized off that and we fouled too much and they made all their free throws.

"They capitalized off our mistakes, simple as that."

The Spartans went without a field goal for almost seven minutes and turned over the ball four times in that time – adding to the 16 total that the Spartans committed.

"We definitely beat ourselves," Valentine said. "Sixteen turnovers, gave up critical offensive rebounds. We beat ourselves."

UConn went on a 12-0 run, taking advantage of the turnovers and taking momentum from the Spartans.

"I think they controlled it from then on out," junior Travis Trice said.

The Huskies lead grew to 10 after guard Ryan Boatright knocked down a 3 with 6:27 left, but back-to-back 3-pointers from Valentine and Harris got Michigan State right back in it.

"Everything was going their way until we finally made a run," Appling said, "but it took so much out of us to make that run that it almost seemed like we just didn't have enough left to get over the hump."

Appling pulled the Spartans within two with his first basket of the game – a driving layup late in the shot clock – with 2:38 to go. With a chance to take the lead, a Dawson turnover gave the ball back to the Huskies and Napier hit a fading long two over Dawson to extend the lead back to four.

A pair of Payne free throws brought it back to a two-point game, but Napier knocked down his three free throws to finish with a game-high 25 points and ended the Spartans' hopes of pulling a Final Four off after battling all season.

It was a tough end to what Izzo has referred to after the game as his "hardest season."

"I just think it's been a tough year," Izzo said. "A lot of the things you hoped, I said we'll never be back to where we were and I don't think we were.

"But it's been an enjoyable year because I saw so much adversity and guys kind of fighting their way through it."

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