Hurt from last year motivating Spartans

Michigan State players remember the pain of losing in the Elite Eight a year ago to Connecticut and are looking to avoid that feeling come Sunday.

Tum Tum Nairn didn’t have to be in the Michigan State locker room last season at Madison Square Garden to feel the hurt for the Spartans after a loss to UConn.

He could see it as he watched his future teammates have their season end in the Elite Eight. He could see it in pictures he saw from the locker room.

So he took one image of an emotional Branden Dawson and Denzel Valentine and sent it to them with a message of encouragement.

”I texted them and I was like, ‘Next time you have this feeling, it’s going to be tears of joy,’” Nairn said.

Dawson and Valentine both remember getting the text from Nairn. On Sunday, they will have a chance to make it come true against No. 4 seed Louisville.

”He said that we can definitely get back and here we are in a position with an Elite Eight game playing against one of the top team in the country,” Dawson said.

A year ago, the hurt was real for Michigan State. After an injury-riddled season, the Spartans got rolling in the postseason, but saw the run come to an end in a 60-54 loss to eventual national champion Connecticut.

“We felt like we shoulda won that game,” Valentine said. “We were up. The tables turned and we lost. It was a bad feeling, but we vowed we were going to get back here.”

Some of the motivation came from the looks on the faces of seniors Keith Appling and Adreian Payne following the loss, as they were the first group of seniors not to play in a Final Four in Tom Izzo’s tenure.

Appling had his head buried in hands for some time afterward, but the impact went beyond the seniors that day.

”As disappointing as it was to see them go out like that, that hurts us, too,” Travis Trice said. “It’s been a dream for us to go to a Final Four and play for a national championship.

”It’s added motivation for us, too, because we want to get there.”

Dawson and Trice can avoid a similar fate and restart the streak of seniors in the Final Four with a win Sunday.

”Tomorrow, we have a great chance of making it to a Final Four,” Dawson said. “It’s great for myself and this team and Travis.”

With that and being one game away, the team’s focus has started to shift toward being in the final group in Indianapolis next week. Admittedly, that was not the focus during the season.

“That’s been more as of late,” Trice said. “During the year, we were having enough trouble trying to get into the tournament let alone trying to make a run as a No. 7 seed.”

That trouble caused a change in the team chant – which had been “Indy” through the summer. With the losses and struggles mounting, Izzo put that to rest and wanted the focus on one game at a time.

So the battle cry became “Beat Whomever” as the Spartans looked to right the ship. Valentine figures it will say the same tomorrow and not going to back to the “Indy” call.

“We are going to stick with our plan that has worked – Beat Louisville,” he said. “When we get to Indy, it’s going to be great.”

Which goes back to another text sent by Niarn. Well, more like a lot of texts saying “Indy” throughout the summer.

”He would text me at like 5:30 every morning before weights, like ‘Indy’ and I would be like, ‘This kid is crazy,’” Valentine said.

Crazy, but maybe prophetic if tears of joy and a trip to Indianapolis result Sunday. But there still is one more game to be won.

”Our goal coming in was to win the weekend the weekend and we haven’t accomplished that yet, so there’s nothing to celebrate,” Trice said.

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