Short-Handed, Full-Hearted: Michigan State 85, Maryland 83

With five and a half minutes left to go in the game, and a trip to the Sweet Sixteen on the line, Tom Izzo had this lineup out on the floor:

Korie Lucious

Mike Kebler

Austin Thornton

Raymar Morgan

Derrick Nix

That looks more like a lineup you'd see with a couple minutes left in a blowout win than it does like a group of players on whose backs Izzo would place the team's NCAA Tournament fate.  But those five guys--along with Draymond Green, Durrell Summers, and Delvon Roe--came up huge, sending the second best team in the ACC home this afternoon.

The way the game ended obscures how thoroughly MSU outplayed Maryland for most of the game.  MSU led by 15 points with 8 minutes to go in the game--having outscored the Terrapins 24-18 in the first 12 minutes after halftime, despite playing without its all-conference point guard against persistent full-court pressing.  Durrell Summers' 26 points on 6-7 three-point shooting, with most of his long-distance makes coming in transition, were an enormous factor in that success.

Ultimately, the MSU players cracked against the Maryland full-court pressure, allowing the Terrapins to score 8 points in 26 seconds to pull within one point with 87 seconds to go in the game.  After yet another MSU turnover, Maryland scored to take the lead with 35 seconds left.

It was at that point that Draymond Green took over, calmly knocking down a jumper to regain the lead and, following a Greivis Vasquez leaner on the other end, becoming the de facto point guard for the game's final play.  I suspect most of us have already rewatched that final play about a dozen times.

Green's pass, Roe's duck, Lucious's pump fake and high-arching shot, victory.

(Thank goodness Tom Izzo didn't follow through on his initial motion toward a time-out signal when Lucious pump faked.  I'm surprised he didn't call a time-out after Vasquez scored, which is his standard move in that situation.  Instead, he let the play develop naturally and allowed his players to take advantage of the fact the Maryland defense wasn't set.)

Outside of the turnover issues, you couldn't ask for better execution than MSU showed today:

 

The Spartans knocked down shots from all angles (.550/.556/.786), absolutely dominated the glass, and--for most of the game--contained the multi-talented Vasquez.  Through 30 minutes, Vasquez had 15 points, 5 assists, and 3 turnovers.  Those are solid numbers, but not the kind of numbers Maryland needed to keep up with MSU's explosive offensive attack today (85 points in 71 possessions).  Vasquez obviously turned things on late, scoring 11 points and dishing out 3 assists in the final 10 minutes.  MSU had a tougher time against Vasquez's back-court mate: Eric Hayes put up 18 points (on 4-7 three-point shooting) and 7 assists to keep the Terrapins within striking distance.

The turnovers that led to a buzzer-beater being necessary to grab the win were obviously frustrating.  For most of the game, MSU attacked the press confidently, finding open players streaking down the court and knocking down open shots on the other end.  But they started making poor decisions with the ball late, dribbling into tight spaces in the corners, rather than looking for quick passes to open players.  (Can we occasionally do something that involves setting a pick when in-bounding the ball vs. pressure?)

One play in that final flurry of Maryland baskets was particularly aggravating to this blogger.  Some context from a couple months ago:

Gripe: Can we quit with the turning-our-backs-on-the-in-bounder strategy on out-of-bounds plays?  As far as I can tell, it's not doing anything to create problems for our opponents.  But it is resulting in easy baskets for them.  Morgan's 4th foul was the result of being out of position on Westbrook after Westbrook in-bounded the ball and then got it back.  Later, Westbrook got a layup with 3 seconds left on the shot clock by throwing the ball off the turned defender's backside.

I've complained about this strategy throughout the season (sometimes just talking to myself in the living room).  Today, it nearly cost us the game.  After an MSU turnover with a minute a half to go, Maryland was in-bounding the ball down by just two points.  The MSU defenders left Vasquez, of all players, unguarded because he was the in-bounds passer.  He threw the ball in bounds, got a quick return pass in the corner, and promptly knocked down a 3-pointer to give Maryland its first lead in over 35 minutes.

I don't get it.

Thank goodness that Korie Lucious's bomb found its way to the bottom of the net as the final buzzer sounded.

On to the player bullets:

  • Durrell Summers hadn't made more than two 3-pointers in a game the entire season.  Today, he made six of them.  His timing couldn't have been more perfect.  Showed great body control on a couple scores going toward the hoop, as well.  From end-of-the-game benching to go-to scorer in 9 days.
  • Korie Lucious: 13 points on 8 FGA, 2 assists, and 2 turnovers in 27 minutes.  As I recall, one of the turnovers was an attempted no-look pass to an open player under the basket Lucious couldn't quite throw on target.  So, against as much full-court pressure as MSU has seen all year, Lucious turned the ball over once (as most--I don't remember the context).
  • Draymond Green posted a classic Draymond Green line: 9 points, 8 rebounds (all on defense), 5 assists, 2 turnovers, 1 steal, 2 blocks. We've mused previously that Green had the ability to play point guard.  In the biggest moment of the season, he went ahead and did it.
  • Raymar Morgan continued his late-season push to seal his place among the greatest Spartan basketball players of all time: 17 points on 11 FGA, 9 rebounds (8 on defense), 2 assists, 1 steal, 3 blocks.  Six turnovers were the downside; I think Green is the better option to in-bound the ball against pressure.  Morgan defended Vasquez very well for most of the game, using his size to contain Vasquez when he got into the lane.
  • With his knee clearly bothering him, Delvon Roe played the second highest number of minutes (24) he's played since the beginning of Big Ten play.  4 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists.  Made a couple really nice entry passes from way up top.
  • Derrick Nix also gave Izzo some extra minutes.  His 15 minutes were the most he's played since the second game of the season.  8 points (including back-to-back free throw makes again), 4 rebounds (all on offense).  (Box score oddity: Nix didn't take a 3-pointer did he--about 2 minutes into the second half?)
  • Austin Thornton went 12 minutes, scoring 4 points and chasing down 2 key offensive rebounds.  He was only 1-5 from the field, taking a few quick shots between the 5-minute and 3-minute marks.  I thought they were good (or, at least, not bad) shots, though.  It was too early to start packing things in and draining the shot clock, particularly without Kalin Lucas available to manufacture something with the shot clock running down.
  • Mike Kebler posted an 8 trillion.  He plays defense and he doesn't turn the ball over.
  • Not a great night for Garrick Sherman: zero points, 1 rebounds, 1 turnover, 3 fouls in 6 minutes.  Just missed a reverse layup from under the basket off a fast break.
  • Chris Allen only managed 4 minutes on his strained arch.  Didn't get a shot off.  Speaks to how much Tom Izzo trusts Allen on the court that he put him out there (briefly) with under 2 minutes to go to try to stanch the bleeding against the Maryland press.
  • Last but not least, Kalin Lucas was very efficient leading the fast break before he went down with what looks like a torn achilles tendon: 4 points, 6 assists, and 1 turnover in 16 minutes.

That last bullet makes Tom Izzo's 9th trip to the Sweet Sixteen (in 13 years) more bittersweet than previous trips have been.  With a healthy Lucas, MSU would likely be coming off a double-digit win and looking at decent odds at a second consecutive trip to the Final Four.  As it is, holding on to win today's game after Lucas went down feels like it could be the capstone to this season, rather than just one more step toward a bigger goal.

Still, it's Northern Iowa awaiting MSU on Friday night, not Kansas.  UNI will be an extremely tough foe (they were ranked just 2 spots below us in the KenPom rankings coming into today).  But the Panthers aren't the kind of team with the athleticism to press for 40 minutes, and Izzo may be able to run his offense through Green and Morgan more against a more guard-heavy team.  If they were to advance through that game, Lucas's absence would be more distinct against Ohio State or Tennessee.

But, per usual, I'm getting ahead of myself.  For now, sit back and enjoy this win, my friends.  Our Spartans played, and won, a game for the books today, showing tremendous depth, toughness, and heart along the way. (I'm allowing myself to violate my normal no-cliché rule tonight.)

Go back and watch those final few seconds one more time.

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