MSU head coach Tom Izzo gets a hug and kiss from player Denzel Valentine, center, with players Gavin Schilling, left, and Travis Trice, right, after MSU’s 76-70 win over Louisville in their NCAA Elite Eight game in Syracuse, NY Sunday 3/29/2015. MSU now heds to Indianapolis for the Final Four.
SYRACUSE, N.Y. – When you’re fortunate enough to be sitting a few feet away from the kind of sporting drama that unfolded on the Carrier Dome floor Sunday, you have an obligation to actually watch.
Put down the notebook. Get the face out of the laptop. For the love of all that is good in the world, take one minute off from Twitter. And just look at what is happening.
When the buzzer rang on Michigan State’s 76-70 overtime thriller against Louisville in the East Regional final, the scene was as chaotic as you might expect. MSU players jumped into the arms of other MSU players near midcourt, falling all over each other, as Denzel Valentine looped around and found his brother, Drew – a graduate manager for the Spartans – under the basket for a bear hug.
Tom Izzo and Rick Pitino had a quick, two-handed clasp and then Izzo was into the celebration. And Travis Trice was in the arms of his family, bawling. And assistant coach Dane Fife was holding his daughter, Quinnly, while shaking his head and saying: “Freaking Spartans, man.”
“This is right at the top (of our Final Four runs) because no one believed we’d get here,” said MSU associate head coach Dwayne Stephens, surrounded by his family in the hug-fest. “These guys are so tight.”
I assume all victories to reach Final Fours are greeted with a certain measure of joy – Kentucky seemed pretty happy to escape Notre Dame on Saturday night – and Izzo’s program has had a lot of practice over the years. This was his seventh, starting with a 1999 win over Kentucky in St. Louis. There was something about this celebration that brought to mind that one.
In both cases, there was some disbelief mixed in with the sense of achievement. Or so it seemed. And that makes sense for this team. Yes, the Spartans talked about getting here before the season, but they were still fighting to get into the tournament earlier this month.
“We could have quit,” Travis Trice said after scoring 17 points and earning Most Outstanding Player honors for the East Region. “We could have rolled over and died, but we didn’t. We kept fighting.”
So now the obvious follow-up question: How much fight is left? The 1999 Spartans, despite the gravity of their achievement, got a crack at a loaded Duke team and hung in impressively before falling 68-62. It was their second competitive loss to Duke in two tries.
These Spartans get their second shot at Duke on Saturday (6:09 p.m., TBS) at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, after falling 81-71 in the Champions Classic – also in Indianapolis – on Nov. 18. MSU is a much better team now than it was that night. But the same is true of Duke.
Izzo is going to get some questions this week about the Duke stars he tried to recruit (big man Jahlil Okafor, point guard Tyus Jones) and about his lack of success against Mike Krzyzewski (he’s 1-8). Just one of those games was at Breslin Center and in most of them he had the lesser roster – though that really wasn’t the case for a Sweet 16 loss to Duke in Indy in 2013.
It is the case this time, and the Spartans have to find a way to stop a team with Okafor, Jones, Quinn Cook and one of the stars of this tournament, Justise Winslow.
Is it likely that MSU wins and faces Kentucky or Wisconsin for the national title? No. But this team is majoring in unlikely. And for as emotionally spent as the Spartans were after collecting one of their program’s grandest achievements, they’ll probably be worth watching Saturday night.