Michigan State went all the way from "on-the-bubble" talk to only two wins away from winning a national championship, but, in the end, a "close-knit " MSU team just didn't have enough against a highly talented and well prepared Duke team that is playing their best basketball of the season at just the right time in an 81-61 loss to the Blue Devils in the National Championship Semi-Final.
Behind four early three pointers in their first four three-point attempts, (with three by Denzel Valentine), the Spartans ran out to an 8-point lead--Duke's largest deficit of the tournament, but then MSU only managed 11 more first half points, to include no field goals final 6 minutes of the first half. Duke's offense started to drive into the lane and by halftime the Blue Devils had worked their way to a 36-25 halftime lead.
In the second half, Duke, using a balanced effort, never allowed the Spartans to draw closer than 13 points until the time for a Michigan State comeback finally ran out. Let's look at the how and why of the Michigan State Final Four Game loss.
The "Big Three," And Then?
Denzel Valentine led the Spartans out to their 8-point lead by hitting his first three, three-point shots. Valentine scored a game-high 22 points on 7 of 11 from the field, hit 5 three pointers, and also had a game-high 11 rebounds.
Travis Trice scored 16 points on 6 of 13 from the field and dished out 5 assists but also took a couple of questionable three-point shots and turned the ball over 3 times.
Branden Dawson scored 12 points but it came on 5 of 12 from the field as Dawson's attempts were too often tentative. Dawson also had 7 rebounds, 2 blocks and 2 steals, but Duke's defense swarmed Dawson and he turned the ball over five times.
Out of the "Big Three," the Spartans got 50 of their points and so only got 11 points from the rest of the team. Matt Costello scored 6 points and grabbed 3 boards but got into foul trouble. Bryn Forbes was shut down by the Duke defense, only got off four shots, and failed to score. Gavin Schilling also got into foul trouble again and only played 12 minutes while grabbing 2 boards. Marvin Clark played ten minutes but fouled 4 times and only got 1 point and 1 rebound while turning the ball over twice. Tum Tum Nairn dished 5 assists but only added ttwo free throws to the Spartans' point total. Forced into 10 minutes on court by the Spartan bigs' foul trouble, Colby Wollenman played fairly well in 10 minutes and got a bucket and three rebounds while playing some good defense on Jahlil Okafor. The lack of contribution from the Spartans other than their "Big Three" meant that MSU could not match Duke who got strong contributions from seven of their players.
The Game Plan...Advantage Once Again to Coach K
After MSU got out to their early lead, Duke's defense started pushing MSU ballhandlers farther and farther away from the basket. Duke used aggressive man-to-man defense and then threw double teams at the MSU guards which thwarted almost any success by the MSU offense in the half court.
Duke's game plan and pressure took away MSU's sharing strength, and the Spartans only assisted on 2 baskets in the first half and only had two players who had assists on the game--Trice with 5 and Nairn with 5, but then, no one else. Duke also turned the Spartans over 14 times which included untimely turnovers which either doubled down on a Duke made basket or shut down a potentially momentum building moment for MSU.
On defense, the Spartans were unable to stop Duke's drives into the lane and too often Duke's drives resulted in either a bucket or free throws. Duke went to the free throw line 37 times and picked up 27 points from the charity stripe. Coach Izzo had said in his press conferences leading up to the game that he wanted to take away Duke's three-point shot making the claim that letting Duke (or Okafor) score two was better than Duke scoring three--well, Duke only hit two three pointers, but the Blue Devils twos, plus all those ones, were too much to overcome.
Coach Izzo now falls to 1-9 vs. Coach K with the reason being, like tonight, both talent and a better game plan.
A Team To Be Proud Of
As Coach Izzo and us Spartan fans know, this year's team both maximized their ability and highly exceeded expectations and in that there is so much to be proud of. After the loss to Illinois at home, that now seems so long ago, this team started to play with a fire, intensity, and a toughness that set the stage for this unexpected run. There was also something special about this team and their run which further entrenched the idea and identity of the Spartans as a true family. Maybe, it was that this team had such a small margin of error, and so needed, and had a team that seemed to want, every good wish and piece of advice from so many of those Spartans of the past. So, although it was sad end to a longer than expected run, in the "overalls," it was not only a great run to watch and also get behind, but, it was a season and a team which helped to further build and enhance that "Spartan for life" culture--such a positive identity in the sporting world today--and an an identity which should bode very well for the future success of the Michigan State basketball program.