The Team That Would Not Die: Michigan State 70, Tennessee 69

At this point, I'm too emotionally spent to do a blow-by-blow account of how this game was won, so let's start with the big picture numbers:

 

Tennessee actually beat Michigan State in three of the four factors, and the MSU edge on the boards was negligible (1.6%).  From a statistical standpoint, the game was won at the line.  Tennessee shot 14-21 from the line.  MSU was just a bit better at 16-20, excluding the final designed miss by Raymar Morgan.  This was pretty much the definition of "edging" your opponent out.

It was a pretty tight game all the way through.  Tennessee led by 6 in the first half; MSU led by 8 in the second.  Those were the maximum margins.  The Volunteers looked like they were ready to take a big lead early on, knocking down their first six attempts from beyond the arc (led by two early makes from the 6'9" Wayne Chism).  Somehow, MSU managed to keep up on the other end to be down just two (24-22) after the sixth make.

At that point, my theory about packing it in to force a team that had shot only 31.7% from 3-point range on the season to take looking jumpshots wasn't looking very smart.  Thankfully, the Tennessee players cooled off from long distance, making only 1 of 10 three-point attempts for the remainder of the game.

It was nip and tuck for the next 15-20 minutes until MSU went on an 8-point run to take a 59-51 lead with 11 and a half minutes ago.  Playing with such a short bench, though, the Spartan players couldn't maintain that intensity indefinitely.  Tennessee climbed back, and the game was all even at 66 with 3 minutes to go.

From there:

A Durrell Summers 3-pointer and a Brian Williams dunk netted out to a 1-point MSU lead with a minute left.  Summers missed a jumpshot, but Raymar Morgan came up with the offensive board.  Korie Lucious finally showed some nerves in the starting point guard role, missing the front end of a one-on-one.  An ill-advised Draymond Green block attempt gave Scotty Hopson a chance to give Tennessee the lead at the line, but he couldn't get the second attempt to go down.

With 11 seconds to go, Tom Izzo again wisely chose to forego the timeout and let his team make a play against a defense that wasn't set.  Korie Lucious got the ball downcourt and passed it off to Draymond Green when the defense started collapsing on him.  Green's un-power-forward-esque court vision allowed him to find Raymar Morgan under the basket.  The rest is history (skipping past the weakest last-second halfcourt attempt in basketball history; J.P. Prince salutes with more force than he generated on that fling of the ball).

(There, I did it.  Feeling even more emotionally exhausted now.)

Remarkably, this was just a 58-possession game.  I was surprised Tennessee didn't push the tempo more to take advantage of MSU's depth issues.  They pressured Lucious bringing the ball up the court, but never went into full pressing mode.  And their halfcourt offense was quite deliberate for most of the game.

Outside of the early 3-point makes, Tennessee never got a great rhythm going offensively.  Only two Volunteers had more than 2 two-point makes: Prince (5-5, mostly off dunks) and Brian Williams (5-8, giving Green and Nix all they could handle around the basket).  That was at least partly the result of the MSU defenders taking a physical approach with players cutting through the lane (which also resulted in some issues with foul trouble).

Ultimately, the game was won on offense, though.  Korie Lucious didn't have the most efficient game this time out, shooting just 2-9 from the field and turning it over 5 times.  (He also contributed 4 assists, 3 rebounds, and 5 steals.)  That left the scoring load to Summers, Morgan, and Green.  All three came up big once again.  Summers scored 21 points on just 10 FGA; he's now 16-30 from 3-point range in the tournament, with a regional Most Outstanding Player award to show for his efforts.  Morgan and Green each went for 13 points, shooting a combined 8-8 from the free throw line (again not counting the final miss).  Morgan was all over the court: 10 rebounds (6 on offense), 2 assists, 1 steal, and 2 blocks.

Chris Allen had 8 points, including a timely 3-pointer, in 29 minutes played on a bad foot.  Delvon Roe was limited today, with 3 points, zero rebounds, and four fouls, but he played some solid defense, blocking 3 shots.  Derrick Nix pushed Williams around for 13 minutes.  Beyond that, nobody had to play more than 6 minutes off the MSU bench.

That's now four tournament wins by a total margin of 13 points.  When you're winning close games like that, it means you're getting some breaks along the way.  But it also means that this team (1) hasn't allowed opponents to make big runs on them, despite missing their team leader and playing with a limited number of healthy regular contributors, and (2) has made big plays down the stretch in tight games.  As good as Kalin Lucas has been with the ball in his hands late in close games, it's amazing that we've got two guys, in Morgan and Green, that now seem every bit as confident when the game is on the line.

Tom Izzo prides himself on having teams that are mentally tough.  Under the circumstances, this team deserves that label at least as much as any Izzo-coached team has.

Six Final Fours in 12 years.  Here's a tweet from TOC contributor Rob Visconti:

Every 4-year player in Izzo's program has gone to a Final Four. That streak is now intact through the Class of '13. His tenure began in '95.

(Project for later this week: Compile the list of players that statement applies to.)

You'd think we'd be getting used to this by now, but this Final Four comes as the most shocking of the bunch.  Not even the most die-hard Spartan would have believed that Tom Izzo's powers included advancing to a Final Four with his all-conference point guard out for the final two and a half games of the run and two other players in the top seven playing at less than 80% capacity.

But here we are--off to Indianapolis in a few days.  We won't be the home-state favorite this time.  That honor falls to our next opponent, the Butler Bulldogs.  Following up on a Midwest bracket that opened up to MSU's advantage, the opponent in the national semi-final will be a fellow #5 seed (but a #5 seed that took out the #1 and #2 seeds on their route to the Final Four).

Tip-off is 6:07 p.m. Saturday night.  This fantastical journey goes on for at least another six days.

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