Given Tom Izzo as the Michigan State Spartans head coach has 22 straight years in the NCAA tournament and 52 wins in that time frame, there are a lot of games to look back at over his career. So I decided we could all use a fun debate over what his best win each day of the tournament was through each round. For the previous game recaps in this series, you can find the full list here.
Today brings us to Coach Izzo’s part of the brackets that offers the slimmest pickings. While Tom Izzo and the Michigan State Spartans have a nation’s best eight Final Four appearances since 1999, MSU has only gone 2-6 in those appearances. Of those two, it is surely no surprise which of the choices gets the pick for best win of the Final Four.
When even the players were pissed about their opponent and complained about how much the game sucked to play it should come as no surprise that beating the Wisconsin Badgers for the fourth time in the same season, no matter how satisfying the next game was that tournament, didn’t get the nod. Instead the 2009 Final Four in Detroit easily won this round, and it was not even close. I still have my souvenir seat cushion they gave everyone to this day.
That’s right, as if any of you need a reminder, the 2009 Final Four was in DETROIT. The rest of the country was reeling still feeling the effects of the 2008 financial crash. Meanwhile, those of us in Michigan were almost to the end of the lost decade, but we were still years away from knowing that.
The Big Three had needed a bailout, the Renaissance Center was almost abandoned by GM, the Detroit Lions don’t need anymore elaboration than simply saying their name no matter the year, and Detroit was especially hard hit and struggling. Enter the Spartans and the 2009 Final Four.
Just for one weekend (and even through the daytime Monday), the MSU men’s basketball team offered the entire state, minus most Wolverine fans, a break and a moment of hope, optimism, and something to simply be happy about when there were not a lot of options. The downtown area around Ford Field was one giant party. Everywhere you looked there was a sea of Spartan green. Chants of “Go Green! Go White” were heard on every corner. Coach Izzo took the opportunity to educate the team on the struggles of Detroit and call attention to its plight on the national stage. Meanwhile Ford Field, one of the most underrated sports venues in the country in my opinion, played host to its biggest sporting event since the 2006 Super Bowl as time finally came for the first game of the night, Michigan State against the UConn Huskies.
The game plan for Michigan State in this one was textbook perfection given the setting: pure Detroit ponies. The UConn Huskies were led by fearsome big man Hasheem Thabeet. Thabeet stood 7’3” and around 263 pounds. He was averaging 13.6 points per game and 4.2 blocks. He was also averaging a double-double in Big East conference play and was named defensive player of the year, though Goran Suton was averaging a double-double throughout the NCAA tournament thus far for MSU. However, when it came time to face the Spartans Thabeet was sucking wind halfway through the first half. After the first few possessions of the second half, he honestly looked lost playing down in the post the rest of the game.
The Spartans started off hot, jumping out to a 9-2 lead just two and a half minutes into game play. Their shooting cooled off from there as UConn came back to tie it up at 14 with 12:44 left. The Huskies proceeded to seize the lead for most of the rest of the first half with the Spartans keeping it close.
Korie Lucious finally took the lead back for the Spartans with a three pointer off a Travis Walton assist with 2:53 to go. From there MSU held on for the rest of the half to head into the locker room up 38-36.
UConn managed to come out hot to start the second half and seized a quick 42-38 lead in less than a minute of game play. The Spartans kept the game close, however and never let the Huskies pull more than four points away. Then Raymar Morgan finally managed to break out after his slump mid-season with walking pneumonia and his face mask for a broken nose caused him to struggle in games since January.
Morgan stripped Craig Austrie and started a 12-2 run for the Spartans that put the game all but out of reach for the Huskies. Morgan stripped Austrie then passed a dish to Draymond Green for an easy layup. Austrie missed a shot at the other end on UConn’s next possession and Kalin Lucas grabbed the rebound and sprinted upcourt. He proceeded to split two Connecticut defenders for a wide-open layup. When I say wide open, I mean more open than a DTW parking lot right now because there was no help down low on defense. Thabeet didn’t even bother to run up the court to play defense, gasping for air with his hands on his hips.
UConn had yet another missed shot their next possession, and Morgan grabbed the board and passed out a rocket of a pass to Chris Allen who rolled it in for a 53-49 lead. Jim Calhoun called a timeout with 13:08 to go, but the two third’s MSU crowd made it clear there wouldn’t be any chance at coming out of the huddle with a renewed focus for the Huskies.
After a Goran Suton jumper assisted by Draymond Green with 7:04 to go, the Spartans held a ten point lead 64-54. UConn did manage to cut it down to a six point game off back to back sets of A.J. Price free throws with 4:12 to go and the score now 66-60. Kalin lucas responded with a three pointer off a Walton assist 12 seconds later and Morgan slammed down a monster dunk with 3:21 to go to make it an 11 point lead 71-60.
UConn refused to go quietly, though. They managed to rally to within three off a Stanley Robinson dunk with 1:08 to go, making the score 74-71. However, Detroit’s own hometown boy Durrell Summers, whose parents had recently been laid off, fittingly responded with a three point play of his own eight seconds later. Summers made a layup while drawing the foul by Kemba Walker and sunk his extra point. The Spartans proceeded to push the lead out to ten before the Huskies got their last basket of the game with 30 seconds left. Two more free throws by Lucas would make that score final as Price missed the final shot and Summers grabbed the rebound to hold on for the huge 82-73 win. The Spartans would now advance to their first title game since 2000, and they did it in front of a then Final Four record crowd of 72.456 fans, more than a majority of whom were sporting green and white.
Thabeet led the Huskies with 17 points and six rebounds. Second in scoring for the Huskies were Stanley Robinson and A.J. Price who had 15 each. Robinson added 13 rebounds to lead the team.
As for the Spartans, Kalin Lucas led the team in scoring with 21 points, while Raymor Morgan was second with 18. Morgan just missed out on a double-double with his team high nine rebounds, and also led in steals with five. Korie Lucious added 11 points and Darrell Summers scored ten. Travis Walton led the team with assists dishing out five.
Unfortunately, we all know what happened next. Michigan State went up against the [should be redacted title] North Carolina Tar Heels in a Big Ten/ACC Challenge rematch from December in the same venue. Yet again, it was the same result. The 98-63 loss in December was more competitive but not by much as the final score ended at 89-72. However, that Final Four win over UConn will remain one of the most magical games of Tom Izzo’s career, at least for me.
Be sure to check back Monday when the mystery of the top title game will be revealed! In the meantime, that’s another “Victory for MSU!”