It mirrored the season in so many ways...
Though their second half defensive adjustments and improved offensive plan had brought the Spartans back from being down by 8 points at the half, continued Spartan mistakes kept MSU from putting the game away even with seeming momentum on their side. Whether it was unforced turnover for a lay-up, or a poor shot, one rebound they didn't grab, one loose ball they couldn't gather, a missed open shot, a defensive assignment blown, or a missed free throw, somehow, what was once a six-point lead evaporated until enough Spartan mistakes allowed Louisville to have a chance at the free throw line, with only five seconds to play, to take the lead and head to the Final Four. Fortunately for the Spartans, Louisville's Mangok Mathiang, after getting the first free throw to fall off of a high bounce off of the back iron, missed the second free throw and after a half-court Travis Trice missed heave, the game was sent into overtime—the Spartan's eighth overtime game this season.
In OT, Yet Again...
Bryn Forbes opened up the overtime by hitting an open three pointer and the Spartans never trailed from there.
The Spartans survived having both Matt Costello and Gavin Schilling being DQ'ed by fouls as Costello had fouled out with 2:21 still to play in regulation, and then when Schilling picked up his fifth foul less than a minute into OT.
Struggling to score in OT, MSU took advantage of Louisville's spread out defense as Bryn Forbes got to the free throw line and made two free throws, (though he missed a free throw where Louisville picked up a lane violation). Denzel Valentine then got a breakaway lay-up down court off of Branden Dawson block and a Marvin Clark Jr. find, and then, with MSU only up by two with less than 40 seconds to play, Branden Dawson came through off of a Bryn Forbes three-point miss with a tip-in offensive rebound which put the Spartans up by four with 36 seconds to play.
The Spartan defense continued to lead the way in overtime, only allowing one Louisville field goal in OT, and then finally forcing a Cardinals' turnover with 13 seconds to play which allowed Travis Trice to step to the free throw line where Trice iced the game for the Final Four bound Spartans.
How MSU Got to OT
In the first half, Louisville, led by NBA-headed-junior Montrezl Harrell, dominated the Spartans in the paint. Louisville scored 24 points in the paint led by Harrell's 12 first half points. Louisville's recent struggles with their outside shooting have been well-documented, but senior guard Wayne Blackshear supplied points from beyond the arc by hitting three first-half three pointers. Louisville's defense also helped force the Spartans into 7 first half turnovers which resulted in two breakaway lay-ups and, at the half, the Spartans found themselves down 40-32.
Coming out of halftime Michigan State made adjustments on both offense and defense and the Spartan defense was especially outstanding in holding Louisville to only 5 of 25 from the field in the second half with three of those baskets coming on quick buckets directly off of Spartan turnovers. The Spartans' defense took away Louisville's ball movement, which caused the Cardinals' guards to try and go one-on-one too often, and the result was that MSU did not allow a basket while in their half-court defense until 3:38 was left in the second half and it was only basket Louisville scored while running their half-court offense in the entire second half. On offense, MSU made sure to spread the ball around and got points from eight different players in the second half. The Spartans worked their way up to a six-point lead which they held until there was just under 5:30 left to play, but Louisville fought their way back to take a one-point lead, at 64-63, on Wayne Blackshear free throws with just 1:13 left to play. On the following Spartans' possession, Denzel Valentine was left all alone and was dribbling while being hounded by the Louisville defense as the shot clock began to wind down, but Valentine found Marvin Clark Jr. in the paint and Clark got a hook off the window to go down which gave the Spartans back the lead. MSU held on defense on the the next Louisville possession, and it was again Clark Jr. who stepped up to grab an aggressive defensive rebound with just 25 seconds to play and Clark Jr. was fouled. At the free throw line with only a one-point lead, Clark Jr. missed both of his free throws which gave Louisville a chance to take the lead. Though the Spartans defense got a jumpshot miss, Mangok Mathiang grabbed an offensive rebound and the Spartans were forced to foul with just five second left to play. Luckily for the Spartans, Mathiang missed his second free throw which allowed the Spartans to extend their season in overtime.
A True Team Effort...the Spartan Contributors
Travis Trice played 44 minutes of the games 45 minutes, scored 17 points, grabbed 5 rebounds and dished out 5 assists while being the primary defender of Louisville's potentially high scoring guard, Terry Rozier, who Trice helped to hold to 6 of 23 from the field.
Denzel Valentine came out wound up early and it seemed for every good play Valentine was also making a questionable one. Though never fun or especially pleasant, Spartan fans have become accustomed to living with Valentine's sometimes shaky mistakes and decisions because he has often provided more good plays than bad plays--and, down the stretch, it's often been more good Valentine plays, which have led to wins, than Valentine mistakes which have led to losses. Valentine scored 15 points on 7 of 15 from the field, grabbed 7 rebounds and dished out 6 assists but turned the ball over three times, committed a second foul in the first half and then a third foul in the second half which put him on the bench, and also took two-too-many questionable long-distance shots.
Branden Dawson had another quiet first half despite his Oklahoma post-game promise that his motor would be running high and despite getting challenged by Louisvlle's Montrezl Harrell. Dawson was only 1 of 5 in the first half from the field with his only bucket coming when the Spartans worked Dawson into a mismatch down low against the 6'1" Rozier. Dawson stepped up his game in the second half picking up an early "and-one" but then Dawson got baited into a turnover bringing the ball up court which led to a Louisville lay-up. After the turnover though, Dawson continued to play hard and by game's end Dawson had 11 rebounds, 9 points, and 4 blocked shots. Dawson's biggest basket came in overtime when he tipped in a Bryn Forbes three-point miss which took the Spartans' lead up to 4 with just 36 seconds to play.
Though the Spartans have been "Three Amigo" heavy of late, the seven other Spartans who played combined to score 35 points, grab 12 rebounds, and dish out 9 assists.
Those MSU Role Players
Gavin Schilling came through with a slam dunk in transition and importantly knocked down all four of his free throw attempts including a one-and-one opportunity. Matt Costello scored all 6 of his points in the second half and grabbed 3 rebounds on the game while dishing 2 dimes. Tum Tum Nairn played 19 minutes, helped get the ball up the court against the Louisville pressure, scored on a driving floater, and grabbed 3 rebounds. Bryn Forbes came off the bench to play 33 minutes in which Forbes played strong defense, hit 4 three pointers, and in the overtime, Forbes got to the free throw line when the Spartans needed points in totaling up 14 points on the game. Alvin Ellis III played well and under control in his 8 minutes on court, got to the free throw line, and made a smart pass into Gavin Schilling in transition which led to the Schilling slam dunk. Mavin Clark Jr. played 18 minutes, hit a three pointer, scored the key bucket off the glass late which put the Spartans back up with just 41 seconds to play, dished out 2 assists, and grabbed the big rebound which led to his free throws at the end of regulation. Also, with both Costello and Schilling being DQ'ed, Clark Jr. did a fine job filling in on defense down low at the end of regulation and into overtime.
Keys to the Spartans' Win? So Many...Let's Pick Six.
1) Limiting Montrezl Harrel touches in the second half.
Harrell entered the half with 12 points but only scored 4 points in the second half and overtime.
2) Defensive adjustments combined with Wayne Blackshear's foul trouble.
Louisville only scored two baskets in their halfcourt offense in the second half and overtime. After eliminating Harrell's touches, only Wayne Blackshear gave the Spartans trouble. Blackshear scored a game-high 28 points but picked up his third foul with 13:43 to play--with the foul coming just two Spartan possessions after a stretch of Blackshear getting to the free throw line for seven free throws on three Louisville possessions. With Blackshear out with foul trouble, the Spartans were able to take their biggest lead.
3) Using the middle and sharing the ball.
Michigan State started to understand where the weaknesses were in the Louisville zone and started to drive towards the middle of the lane which created higher quality shots. Eight Spartans scored in the second half and the Spartans assisted on 20 of their 26 made baskets.
4) Experience down the stretch.
This Michigan State team has been in these positions of playing in close games so often this season that nearly every potential learning situation of what could happen down the stretch has been touched upon by the 2014-2015 Spartans. After surviving Louisville's free throws to go to overtime, MSU looked calm and confident in OT.
5) This "close-knit" group, they picked each other up.
Even though they made numerous mistakes throughout the game, the Spartans never got too down on each other. Up until this game in the Tournament, MSU had been rarely turning over the ball, but the Spartans turned the ball over 12 times which included 5 turnovers for Izzo-TDs and 10 Louisville points. When Marvin Clark Jr. missed both his free throws with a chance to put the Spartans up by two or three points with just 22 seconds to play, the Spartans stepped up to put together a strong defensive stand. This team has lived together through the highs and lows of this up and down season and their belief in each other and their closeness as a group is no doubt the key intangible that has led to this season's unexpected, and perhaps improbable, Final Four appearance.
6) And Free Throws!
Continuously referred to by TV commentators, over the graphic of, "MSU Free Throw Shooting % This Season," as the "worst free throw shooting team of the Tom Izzo era," part of the reason that MSU was able to overcome its mistakes was that they made 75% of their free throws in the game against Louisville. The Spartans hit 15 of 20 from the charity stripe which included 4 for 4 by Gavin Schilling, and 9 of 14 from Spartan players not named Trice, Valentine, or Forbes.
And March-ing On...And to Indy we go!
Michigan State will meet Duke who won their Elite 8 match-up with Gonzaga, 66-52. The Spartans lost to Duke in MSU's second game of the season. Coach Izzo is now 1-8 vs. Coach K in his career, but, that Coach Izzo is great at making adjustments having seen a team previously and that this is now a very different Michigan State Spartan team gives us Spartan fans great hope. Stay tuned to TheOnlyColors this week for plenty of Final Four talk including a preview of Michigan State's Final Four match-up against Duke.