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Men’s Basketball: MSU smothers LSU to move on to the Elite-8

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-East Regional-LSU vs Michigan State Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

MSU 80 LSU 63

Well that was fun!

Yesterday in the locker room I talked with Matt McQuaid, Gabe Brown, and Aaron Henry, I asked each of them if they were especially “up” for their positional match-up with some talented, athletic, NBA-aura wings. They all demurred talking about defending and rebounding. My personal preview had me thinking that Winston and Waters might cancel each other out, and that the starting front-courts might as well, which would leave the wings and the benches of the respective teams to possibly decide the game. So I had a feeling those three might have a shot to play a big role.

Oh boy did they ever, and man did those guys - especially Brown and Henry - really sandbag their answers. No one would have expected that kind of dominant performance from those two freshmen wings, but those expectations went out the window as soon as the game started.

MSU started the game hot, thanks in large part to LSU giving the Spartans open looks from wherever they wanted. Henry and Winston gave MSU a quick burst, only for Waters to prove his quality beating McQuaid for a couple quick buckets and an early foul on the Spartans’ senior guard. And then the story of the game came through loud and clear; from Izzo’s mouth yesterday, down the stretch run this year, and through to the players on the court tonight: connection.

The story of this game and this team and this season is connection – when LSU made the game about one-on-one match-ups they did really well, and when MSU found a way to stay connected on defense, with their bigs helping Waters’ primary defender they put a lid on the LSU offense.

The connection bit really came through when Brown came in for McQuaid after some early struggles: LSU left Brown open for two wide-open looks from 3, Brown’s teammates fired him passes, right into his shooting pocket, and Brown calmly stepped into his shot and drilled them.

The connection continued throughout the first half with the third member of that wing-unit too. Henry delivered a dominant, breakout performance on both ends; getting to the offensive glass, hitting shots, looking comfortable. He looked every bit the future-NBA player today: driving, creating, scoring, rebounding, defending.

MSU 40 LSU 28 at halftime.

After a great first half, MSU faced a bit of adversity in the second. LSU went on a predictable run: amping up the intensity, effort, and physicality. Waters again found his shot, McQuaid, Goins, and Tillman all got whistled for fouls, and all of a sudden that one-time 17 point lead was down to 5. Within a couple of minutes Gabe Brown and Nick Ward came into the game; and the team’s essential connection lived!

Here was my staccato description of this sequence:
A brutal start to the second half. Waters doing his thing again – getting shots, drawing fouls. LSU hitting the offensive glass, scoring in the paint. McQ gets subbed out with MSU’s lead down to 4 points. In comes Gabe Brown. LSU leaves Gabe Brown open at the 3pt line. Gabe Brown makes a huge 3pt shot. MSU gets a stop, Winston hits a long 2. MSU gets a stop, Henry hits a wide open wing 3. MSU gets a stop, Goins hits a transition trailing 3 after Henry and Brown push the break, and cycle back to the top of the key through Winston. These two young wings have come in and executed like veterans.

Ward’s minutes in the second half have been totally vital. Incredible block and rebound from Ward. leads to a Henry push, and an assist to ac corner 3 for Brown. huge sequence. Ward with another block (couldn’t tell if it was clean) leads to a Brown drive to the line in transition. 2 shots for Brown – rattles the 1st. Ward with a 3rd block in this set of minutes. He and Tillman have complete shut down the paint.

Everyone on this team is a veteran, everyone on this team is connected and bound up in each other.

MSU 56 LSU 41

Down the stretch, MSU proved their quality all the more: where Waters had a number of moments of madness, Winston calmly controlled tempo and the game, where Mays completely receded into the shadows, McQuaid hit a clutch 3 and a clutch and-1 to put a final nail into the Tiger-trap.

This was a team - a fully connected, unified, Spartan fist - destroying a young, undisciplined, and talented-but-not-in-the-most-important-ways LSU squad. Where MSU had nearly unflinching discipline in their following of the game-plan (a +7 rebounding differential, and only 7 turnovers), LSU couldn’t help but leave good shooters wide-open for “dare-shots” time and again (MSU shot 13-32 from 3, with at least 20 of those 3’s being of the “wide-open” variety) and couldn’t defend their own glass (MSU had 15 offensive rebounds).

That LSU team was good, this MSU team is better in every way. And this MSU team might just be better than whoever they face in the Elite-8. Because Duke is a very similar team to LSU in terms of style, statistical profile, and personnel (this is not a jinx).

For now the team can relax for an evening as they prep for their next foe. This team has entered well-oiled, fully-connected machine territory. They have very few weaknesses when they play like they did tonight, and if they play like they did tonight on Sunday, then they will be in the Final Four.