EAST LANSING — Michigan State coach Tom Izzo’s high school alma mater received an unforgettable welcome at the Breslin Center before it made history on Thursday.
Izzo took the Iron Mountain boys basketball team on an hour-long tour of the Spartans’ locker room and practice facility on Wednesday.
He then let players watch practice Thursday morning.
“It was awesome,” Izzo told reporters Friday after MSU beat Ohio State. “Those kids … I took them down on the floor … all these guys that probably haven’t been out of the U.P. much.
“It felt like we were in ‘Hoosiers.’ I said (to myself), ‘Should I measure the rim? Should I tell them what (Breslin) is like?’”
A few hours before players saw MSU practice, Iron Mountain reached the state championship for the first time since 1939, when the Mountaineers won it in an Upper Peninsula-only bracket.
The Mountaineers (27-0) beat 2018 state champion Detroit Edison, 60-57.
Up next is mid-Michigan’s own Pewamo-Westphalia, also 27-0, in the Division 3 state finals. Tip-off is 4:30 p.m. Saturday. The game will be broadcast live on Fox Sports Detroit.
Izzo’s assistance may help give Iron Mountain an edge. He helped the team secure practice time Friday at East Lansing High School.
MHSAA rules prohibit teams from practicing at Breslin, said Dan Talerico, Iron Mountain’s athletic booster club president.
Talerico said the players’ opportunity to get a tour from Izzo and see the resources Division I athletes have at their disposal put them in awe.
“It was very exciting for the kids,” Talerico said. “Their eyes were huge checking out the facilities.”
Izzo’s hospitality didn’t end there.
He and fellow Iron Mountain native Steve Mariucci, a former NFL coach, agreed to pay for the Mountaineers’ pregame meal Friday night in East Lansing.
Talerico said Friday afternoon the plan was to eat at the Spartan Hall of Fame Cafe.
Iron Mountain is a town of about 7,000 people that’s more than 400 miles from MSU’s campus.
Izzo told reporters Friday communities in the Upper Peninsula band together during times of celebration, especially athletic achievements.
“The nice thing about the UP that you guys don’t appreciate,” Izzo said told reporters Friday, “is that there are no towns.
“There are towns up there, but once a team makes it to the state (finals), they all claim they’re just Yoopers. The whole Upper Peninsula claims you.”
After Iron Mountain beat Detroit Edison on Thursday, Talerico said Izzo and Mariucci spoke with Mountaineers coaches that night in a conference call and offered words of encouragement.
This season, the Mountaineers haven’t lacked motivation.
They are a young, disciplined team led by junior guard Marcus Johnson, the school’s all-time leading scorer.
Johnson scored his 1,000th career point in December, according to the Iron Mountain Daily News.
“I’ve been around for over 40 years and I haven’t seen a team with this kind of talent,” said Talerico, 46, a 1990 Iron Mountain graduate.
Iron Mountain’s last loss was March 20, 2018, in the state quarterfinals to Maple City Glen Lake.
‘An old friend’
Adam Niemi, Iron Mountain Daily News sports editor, said the reaction people have in the community toward Izzo may surprise outsiders.
“There’s a level of being starstruck, but there’s also a level of familiarity,” said Niemi, 29. “It’s like seeing an old friend, even for the kids who haven’t met him before.”
Izzo, 64, and Mariucci, 63, were Iron Mountain High School teammates in basketball, football, baseball and track.
After Izzo and Mariucci established coaching careers, they co-hosted for 10 years a golf tournament in Iron Mountain to raise money for the community, including a fitness center at the high school.
Eric Lacy is a reporter for the Lansing State Journal. Contact him at 517-377-1206 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @EricLacy.
Detroit Free Press sportswriter Chris Solari contributed to this report.
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Division 3 state finals
Iron Mountain (27-0) vs. Pewamo-Westphalia (27-0) – 4:30 p.m. Saturday
The game will be held at Michigan State’s Breslin Center in East Lansing and televised on Fox Sports Detroit. Live video of the game can be viewed at nfhsnetwork.com. The audio broadcast can be found at mhsaanetwork.com. Tickets to the game are $10 and can be purchased at the venue or this link: https://bit.ly/2F5mDPb. For information, visit mhsaa.com.