Against one of the best, if not the best defensive team in the nation, it was Michigan State's defense which stepped up in the Round of 32 to hold Virginia to only 29% shooting from the field, while the MSU seniors Travis Trice and Branden Dawson combined for 48 of the Spartans 60 points in an MSU 60-54 upset win tover Virginia to earn a trip to the Sweet 16.
Attention to detail was the message preached by Coach Izzo and the Spartan players coming into the game, and the Spartans delivered. MSU only turned the ball over 6 times and their defense not only held Virgina to only 17 field goals on 57 attempts but to 1 of 16 on three-point attempts until Virgina hit a late three in desperation time.
On offense, Michigan State only made 17 field goals but shot 42% from the field by taking advantage of their transition opportunities to net a total of nine points against a Virginia team which rarely gives up anything in transition, and also hit 6 of their 12 three pointers, while getting to the free throw line for 33 attempts by game's end.
That attention to detail on both offense and defense combined with just enough offensive patience and efficiency allowed MSU to overcome Virginia's size advantage which allowed the Cavaliers to grab 18 offensive rebounds.
The Spartan Seniors Step Up Big Time
Travis Trice got the Spartans off to a 15-4 lead by hitting 3, three pointers, which included a desperation three-point runner with the shot clock winding down and then a long-long distance three. Trice also got a breakaway dunk off of a Branden Dawson block and Denzel Valentine find down court, and then a breakaway lay-up off of a Matt Costello steal. Trice missed his next 6 shots, which included a few too many forced shots for Coach Izzo's liking, but then with Virginia charging back and only down by 5 with under 8 minutes to play, Trice hit a huge step-back-in-the-lane jumper with the shot clock running down. With under three minutes to play, and with Virgina again down by 5, with the shot clock again running down, Trice yet again rang the bell when needed with a long three pointer. On the game, Trice scored a game-high 23 points which included shooting 5 of 6 from the free throw line--with Trice, importantly, knocking down both free throws of a one-and-one opportunity which took the Spartans' lead up to 8 with 4:21 to play.
Branden Dawson played a solid 34 minutes scoring 15 points, grabbing 9 rebounds, and blocking 4 shots on the scoresheet, but Dawson absolutely took over in a just-over-two-minute stretch early in the second half.
Here was Dawson's dominant stretch:
18:23 Branden Dawson defensive rebound.
17:40 Branden Dawson block and rebound. Dawson then gets to the free throw line in transition where he knocks down both free throws.
17:00 Branden Dawson dunk in transition, on the assist from Travis Trice, in which Dawson finishes the dunk through the foul and then knocks down the free throw.
16:09 Branden Dawson lay-up off of a Matt Costello offensive rebound and find.
Dawson's two minutes helped the Spartans take their lead up to 8 points after Virginia had cut the Spartans' lead down to only 2 just over one minute into the half.
Enough From the Bench To Survive Foul Trouble
Both Denzel Valentine and Tum Tum Nairn picked up two fouls in the first half. Nairn picked up his second 14:53 into the game and Valentine picked up his second at the 9:56 mark of the first half. Valentine's foul trouble was more of an issue, especially when, after Valentine picked up his third foul with 14:53 to play in he second half, Michigan State went without a field goal until Valentine returned four minutes and forty seconds later.
Bryn Forbes, Marvin Clark Jr., and Alvin Ellis III came on to to spell the two Spartan starters and Forbes, especially, put together a very strong performance. Forbes hit two jumpers, a three and then a long two, and got to the free throw line with an aggressive drive with just over two minutes to play, where Forbes knocked down both free throws. Forbes also played very solid and attentive defense throughout the game, and, with the Spartans needing to grab every rebound possible, Forbes worked to grab 3 defensive boards in the first half.
Valentine was limited to only 21 minutes, 4 points, 4 rebounds, and 4 assists, but the contributions from the Spartan bench helped MSU survive those minutes without Valentine on the court.
The Bigs Do Just Enough
The Spartans got 40 minutes out of Gavin Schilling and Matt Costello and needed every minute possible from their bigs to help control Virginia's size advantage. Schilling, most importantly, stayed out of foul trouble, which allowed him to play 17 minutes while grabbing 2 rebounds, blocking 2 shots, throwing down a slam dunk, and also getting to the free throw line twice where he converted 2 free throws. Matt Costello played 23 minutes and grabbed 5 rebounds, which included a key offensive tip-back rebound to keep a Spartan possession alive in the second half, which, after a Denzel Valentine three-point miss, led to another Spartan offensive board which Costello dished off to Branden Dawson for a lay-up. Costello also had a steal which setup a Travis Trice breakaway lay-up, blocked a shot, and scored 4 points which included knocking down both free throws of a one-and-one opportunity with the Spartans' lead down to only 4 with 5:12 to play.
Free Throws...They Hit 'Em When They Needed 'Em
As Spartan fans well know, all season long, free throw shooting has been an issue for Michigan State.
When Matt Costello stepped to the line for the first Spartan one-and-one free throw opportunity, the Spartans had shot only 8 of 17 from the free throw line up to that point, and with Virgina only down by four, it was again nail biting time for the Spartan faithful, but then, Costello knocked down the first and second, then Travis Trice with a one-and-one opportunity knocked down his first and his second, then Bryn Forbes got the line, and Forbes too knocked down his first and his second. Virginia then put the Spartans on the free throw line five times over the final minute of the game and Trice, Dawson, Valentine, and Nairn hit 6 of those 10 free throws as the Spartans hit 12 of 16 free throws down the stretch which kept the lead at a comfortable, at-least-a-two-possession-difference until the final buzzer.
Tears from Izzo!
All year we have heard that Coach Izzo believes this can be a very good team, but even Coach Izzo seemed surprised at how well Michigan State played today. In just one week, Spartan emotions have gone from so high, to very low, to incredibly high, and it all showed in the tears of Coach Izzo in his post-game interview.
It was just one week ago that the Spartans held an 11-point lead with 7:30 to play against a Wisconsin team which had only been beaten three times this season in the Big Ten Tournament Championship Game only to see Wisconsin come back to force overtime and then shutout the Spartans in OT. It was a championship Coach Izzo dearly wanted for this Spartans' team, which may be one of his least talented teams, but which may also be his most "close-knit" group in his days at MSU.
The highs and lows of the season, the emotional roller coaster of coming up just short so many times, the stress of seven overtime games, the love he feels for this team, and how proud he is of his guys accomplishing what they now have done, all came out in those post-game tears and the Spartans' win over Virgina has given Coach Izzo perhaps his sweetest trip to the Sweet 16 in his hall of fame coaching career.
And March-ing On...
Michigan State now awaits the winner of the #3 seed Oklahoma Sooners vs. the # 11 seed Dayton Flyers. Stay tuned to TOC for updates on the Spartans next Tournament opponent.