MINNEAPOLIS – It wasn’t the way this one was supposed to go.
Not this year. Not after everything Michigan State had been through. Not in a season where it got the necessary run seemingly every time it needed one.
For seven minutes in the second half, it looked as if it was going to get another. Down 13 points with fewer than nine minutes to play, the Spartans chipped away as they so often have.
A Cassius Winston triple, Xavier Tillman triple, four Winston free throws, two Tillman free throws and then four points from Aaron Henry – two from the stripe and a slashing layup – and MSU had put together a 16-4 run in 6:46 of game time to get within one.
But the next three possessions went turnover by Winston on an offensive foul, missed open three-pointer, turnover by Tillman.
That’s what will sit with this Spartans team for the next six-plus months, if not longer.
The Red Raiders’ No. 1 ranked defense stifled the Spartans the majority of the night, trapping everything on the inside and contesting most-everything on the outside and held off a late rally to beat Michigan State 61-51 and advance to the national championship game against Virginia on Monday night.
“Yeah, I did,” said Matt McQuaid when asked if he thought his late three-point attempt was good. “I even started run back a little early because I thought it was going to drop in, but it didn’t.”
That was the last shot McQuaid took in the green and white and it will be one he remembers for quite some time. Kenny Goins, McQuaid’s fellow senior, had his first scoreless night of the season, going 0-4 from the field, all behind the long line.
But to remember Goins with a scoreless performance or McQuaid rimming out a triple on a shot he’s made thousands of times in practice, shoot-arounds and games, would be an incredible disservice to their respective journeys.
Both were in tears following the contest. Naturally, much of that was due to falling approximately 42 minutes short of the dream. But the bulk was the realization beyond the loss.
“It’s about my brothers,” Goins explained, his head hanging as if he didn’t quite have the neck muscles to keep it upright. “It’s everything we’ve gone through off the court… we’re brothers and that’s really what I’m going to miss.”
McQuaid echoed with a similar sentiment. He doesn’t quite have the skillset to play basketball in the NBA, but says he wants to continue the sport he’s loved since he was three-years-old – wherever that may be.
Both, if they want, will have options to play at the next level somewhere over seas. They can make a nice living for themselves, but as everyone who has moved into the “real world” knows, it won’t be the same as college.
“It’s really tough knowing it’s your last game, last time putting on that jersey,” McQuaid said. “I love these guys. We’ve had a crazy season with the injuries and adversity but I wouldn’t want to do it with anybody else. I have a special relationship with everybody in this room from coaches to players to managers, I’ll have a special bond with everybody in this room for the rest of my life.”
Few players have grown from what they were to what they became throughout a career like this small but impactful senior class. McQuaid came to East Lansing as a relatively highly regarded recruit; an assassin from the outside who you couldn’t give an inch or he’d make you pay.
But he quickly learned the lights in the Breslin and on the Big Ten stage were significantly brighter than those in Duncanville Texas. The next four years he became a better player, sure, but when asked about what changed the most during that time, he only mentioned how he grew as a man.”
“When I walked in I was a quiet, shy kid from Texas,” he said. “Now I’m a captain and a leader, one of the more vocal ones. I have to thank my teammates for helping me get here and coach. He was always pushing me to be more vocal and building people skills every day so I have to give coach a lot of credit.”
Goins’ development was more noticable between the lines.
The 6-foot-7 product out of Novi bypassed multiple Division I offers to accept a walk-on scholarship from his dream school. He plugged away to go from walk on who sat the bench, to undersized big in a year where Michigan State didn’t have enough pieces, to critical cog in a well-oiled machine.
Who just so happened to hit the game-winning triple against Duke. Nobody on this team remembers that right now – they will in the coming weeks, months and years.
The best comparison for the 2018-19 Spartan team is Thomas the Tank Engine, but in basketball form: “I think I can, I think I can.”
And they did.
All the way to a Big Ten regular season title. And Big Ten tournament title. Don’t forget the 3-0 sweep of rival Michigan, all which came in top-10 matchups. And then a run to the final four and slaying the almighty dragon that is Mike Krzyzewski and Duke.
That doesn’t happen without the seniors.
“I feel bad for both of them,” Tom Izzo said after the game. “Kenny has grown here but Matt was a bulldog from the day he came in. Matt was the guy I coined the phrase ‘like it, love it or live it’, he lives it…Kenny was a guy who has grown to love the game, he’s gotten better each year so I will be able to use them both as examples to our young guys.
“I’m going to make sure I really analyze this, because there’s going to be another goal of getting back here next year.”