Tender moment for tough Spartans

INDIANAPOLIS – A sea of red ringed Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday, a raucous, largely Louisville rooting crowd here for what they expected to be a victory party en route to a national championship.

Somehow, some way, Michigan State turned it into an emotionally charged homecoming dance.

The second-seeded but underappreciated Spartans stunned the No. 1 Cardinals 64-52 in the NCAA Midwest Regional final, earning a berth to Saturday’s Final Four in Detroit.

MSU was not flustered by Louisville’s vaunted press. Instead it controlled the game’s tempo, played strong man-to-man defense and fed off affectivity. The victory put the Spartans in their fifth national semifinal in 11 years and lifted everyone wearing green into the stratosphere.

Tom Izzo, tears in his eyes, was hugging his seniors and anyone else he could find. At center court, players were jumping and grooving, sporting their newest togs – Final Four t-shirts and hats.

Senior big man Goran Suton belted out the fight song as he and Izzo awaited a CBS TV interview. Izzo fist-pumped to a fan who yelled, “We love you Tom!” Senior guard Travis Walton grinned widely as he gabbed and tugged at headphones he had donned for a radio spot.

Moments later, Izzo shared an embrace with the face of the program, the legendary Earvin “Magic” Johnson. Sophomore point guard Kalin Lucas got kudos and a squeeze from Magic as well.

“When you see your family there, you see Earvin and his dad and so many other fans that drove down here, that’s a special time,” said a hoarse Izzo, calling it the biggest game of his career. “It’s what you hope to do. You impact somebody else’s life and give them a reason to feel good.”

Photo Michigan State coach Tom Izzo reacts after a score in the second half against Louisville.
(AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

This was clearly not just another tournament win for Izzo and the Spartans. They also delivered a much-needed diversion to an economically devastated Detroit. MSU fans and alumni are expected to flock to the Motor City, an hour-and-a-half drive from the school’s East Lansing campus, for next weekend’s games.

“In Detroit let’s face it … it’s been a tough time,” Izzo said. “Our [state] might have been hit as hard as anybody’s. I just hope that we’re a silver lining in what’s been a little bit of a cloudy year. I’m hoping we’re something to embrace, to be involved with and I hope they all support us.”

Backing came in many forms for the Spartans on Sunday. Tendencies Izzo spotted in pregame film study helped him outwit Rick Pitino in the first meeting between two of the game’s best coaches.

Early on it looked as if MSU might not capitalize on the Cardinals’ shooting woes or soft in the middle zone. Suton was being berated by Izzo over the first five minutes for not taking what Louisville was giving. Over the next 15 minutes Suton hit three 3-pointers and scored 17 points as the Spartans built a three-point halftime lead.

“I was a little tentative,” said Suton, who finished with 19 points and 10 rebounds. “I didn’t realize how open I was. Coach told me to shoot the ball or he was going to take me out.”

Lucas (10 points, five assists) took the sting out of Louisville’s press by taking care of and distributing the basketball. The Cardinals did not muster any fastbreak points as Michigan State instead controlled the game in the halfcourt and won it with defense. Louisville shot just 34.8 percent over the final 20 minutes.

“We played hard for 40 minutes,” said Lucas, who grew up just 10 minutes outside Detroit in Sterling Heights, Mich. “We did what coach told us to do. We knew we were going to win this game.”

Walton, MSU’s senior leader, was barking instructions to teammates, urging them to maintain their intensity. He finished with eight points, two assists and most importantly, just one turnover. He’ll play in his first Final Four. Every senior ever recruited to MSU by Izzo has reached that goal.

“I had pressure,” Walton said. “Seniors had pressure. Our underclassmen had pressure to deliver this last class and get them to a Final Four.”

Sophomore Durrell Summers (12 points) stepped up and knocked down shots. Freshman Korie Lucious helped Lucas and Walton handle the ball. Another first-year player, Draymond Green, chipped in six points and 10 rebounds.

Strong feelings were not absent on the other side. The Cardinals looked shell-shocked in the second half and little like the team that had dissected Arizona by 39 points. Senior forward Terrence Williams, held scoreless in the first half, slumped off the court, head down. He managed just five points for the game.

“They were the better team,” Williams said. “Their big man hit shots and that’s what kept them in the game in the first half. That kind of hurt our zone. They were quicker than us. Their defense was more physical and we really couldn’t turn them over like we wanted to.”

Ford Field will be awash in green when Connecticut faces MSU in the NCAA semis Saturday. Izzo said he hadn’t had a chance to give the Huskies much thought, but clearly can’t wait for the dance to continue at Ford Field.

For all intents and purposes the Spartans will be swaying on their home floor.

Gerry Ahern is the Managing Editor/Colleges for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Gerry a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Sunday, Mar 29, 2009