Michigan State walked into an all-too-familiar huddle Sunday afternoon.
For the eighth time this season, the Spartans came together with an overtime period awaiting. Two weeks to the day since their last overtime affair – a loss to Wisconsin in the Big Ten Tournament title game – again Michigan State had the chance to take a season-defining win.
”Denzel and Trav said, ‘We’re winning this one,’” coach Tom Izzo said. “I just went along for the ride and said, ‘Okay.’”
And they did with a thrilling and exhausting 76-70 overtime victory against No. 4 seed Louisville to move onto the program’s seventh Final Four under Izzo.
”It’ll go down as the best one just because of what we went through,” Izzo said.
“I think we definitely shocked the world,” Branden Dawson said, “but we’re not done yet.”
Michigan State will have a chance to keep its improbable run going with a matchup with Duke, the No. 1 seed from the South Region, on Saturday night in Indianapolis. It also is the site of Michigan State’s most recent Final Four (2010) and most recent national title (2000).
It came to be with yet another close tournament game, of which the Spartans have had four so far. And it left seniors Trice and Dawson emotional as they reached a Final Four for the first time, restarting the streak of four-year players reaching one under Izzo that came to an end last year with Keith Appling and Adreian Payne.
Dawson said it was the first time he had seen his longtime friend and teammate Trice cry, who admitted he tried to fight the tears back, but could not.
“I am just so proud of our team, man,” Trice said. “We coulda fell. Halfway through the season we could have not even made the tournament.
”We just decided to fight and I couldn’t pick a better group of guys to go through this with.”
The senior guard was named the East Region Most Outstanding Player after his 17-point effort. For the second time in the weekend, Michigan State put together a comeback after trailing at halftime.
After giving up 40 points – matching a season worst – in the first half, MSU picked it up defensively in a big way. MSU held Louisville to 6 for 32 shooting from the field in the second half and overtime, with three coming via Terry Rozier steals and layups.
”They were shooting a crazy percent,” Valentine said. “That’s not us.”
The Spartans scrapped their way back from the eight-point halftime deficit, opening the second half on a 9-2 run to pull within 42-41. Then a 14-2 run turned the deficit into a six-point lead after Bryn Forbes – who had 14 points – knocked down a corner three and Valentine found Trice with a nifty one-handed pass for a three from the wing to put MSU up 57-51 with 7:53 to go.
The Cardinals weren’t done yet, as Wayne Blackshear hit a 3-pointer with 1:48 to go to cut MSU’s lead to one before flipping it to a one-point lead for Louisville with a pair of free throws.
Valentine dished to Marvin Clark to give the lead back to Michigan State as Clark’s short shot went in off the glass with 39 seconds left. Clark came up big again, pulling down a tough rebound after Rozier missed a jumper. But he missed both free throws with little more than 20 seconds left, leaving the score at 65-64. Trice went over to the freshman quickly during a timeout.
“He just said to keep my head up and told me I was part of the reason we were even in the position right now,” Clark said. “And he told me to keep my head up and we had more game left.”
A Rozier lay up was no good with six seconds left, but Mangok Mathiang came down with an offensive rebound and was fouled with 4.9 seconds left. His first free throw hit the back of the rim, bounced straight up and came back down through the hoop.
”You’re like, ‘This can’t be happening right now,’” Trice said.
The second shot also hit back iron, coming down in the hands of Dawson. Trice’s halfcourt heave was no good.
Forbes’ 3-pointer to open overtime was perfect. He hit a pair of free throws. Dawson came up big defensively, poking the ball loose and Trice got it ahead to Valentine for a lay up, but his next play was the biggest.
With 28 seconds left, the senior skied for a rebound after Forbes missed a three and put it back off the glass for a 74-70 lead.
”When it came off, just being the right place at the right time,” Dawson said. “The ball just came to me and I went up.”
Trice’s pair of free throws sealed the win and the trip to Indy, a trip that few apart from the team would have believed to be possible.
“This is what this program does and it did it again,” Matt Costello said. “Let’s keep this thing rolling.”