Exhaustion matched excitement. As ecstatic as Keith Appling was surviving to see another game in the NCAA tournament, the senior Michigan State point guard was even happier taking a seat in the locker room, grabbing a cold bottle of water and taking a thankful sigh of relief. “It felt like we played a football game,” he said. Denzel Valentine equated it to a heavyweight boxing match. “Both teams just kept throwing punches at each other,” he said, “and neither wanted to go down. It was as physically and mentally grueling as any game I’ve ever been in. It felt like it lasted three hours. But you just kept pushing yourself until you had nothing left. You kept fighting and battling.” The Spartans’ 61-59 Sweet 16 victory over No. 1 seeded Virginia was an ode to old school. Though aesthetically challenged, it was nonetheless a classic tournament game in that the team that successfully mined that last reserve of desire would emerge victorious – albeit just barely. The lessons learned from a season of adverse shifts steadied the Spartans’ hand in the closing seconds even as their legs intermittingly wobbled. And when it finally ended, Tom Izzo and Virginia head coach Tony Bennett embraced. “Tony told me that was what tournament games should be about,” Izzo said. “It was physical. And (the officials) pretty much let it be physical. That’s what you want in that situation. It was a battle of attrition.” Michigan State now earns a date with Connecticut Sunday afternoon for the East Regional championship and a ticket to the Final Four in Arlington, Tex. A victory over the Huskies would give Izzo his seventh Final Four in 17 consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament. And it would maintain the streak of every four-year player during his reign making it to the Final Four. That’s been part of the motivation for Appling and Adreian Payne this season. Until Friday night, neither had advanced beyond the Sweet 16. “We knew that this was going to be a tough game because we knew every possession was going to be important,” said Payne. “That’s the way they play. We kept telling ourselves on the floor and in the huddle that we had to stay focused because one bad possession could cost you the game.” Payne’s renewed concentration was on display in the final two minutes when he confidently nailed a three-pointer that snapped a 51-51 deadlock. He then found Branden Dawson on a lob and calmly drilled two free throws. “A.P. put us on his shoulders there down the stretch,” Valentine said. “He was calling for the ball and ready to take charge. That’s what you want out of a senior. He doesn’t want this to end now. He was determined not to lose this game.” Although the Cavaliers were the top regional seed, the No. 4 seeded Spartans were the prohibitive favorites in this confrontation between basketball kindred spirits. It created some challenges for Izzo who earlier this week said that his team faced the expectations of “the two Presidents – Obama and Vitale.” And while others might frown on getting the No. 1 regional seed in the regional semifinals, Izzo embraced the opportunity due to a simple truth. If you’re not the No. 1 seed, getting to the Final Four more than likely demands beating that No. 1 seed somewhere along the road. And Madison Square Garden wasn’t exactly a neutral setting as it pertained to the size and passion of Virginia’s traveling fan base. The Wahoos screamed like a pack of crazed yahoos. It made it a road game for Michigan State, further testing their emotional sturdiness. The largely partisan Virginia crowd – as well Bennett – exploded when attempting to break free from a Virginia player clutching him on inbounds pass, Appling pushed off like a wide receiver creating space in the corner of the end zone. No call.
Michigan State still standing after Sweet 16 heavyweight battle
Detroit Free Press | Mar 29