As if the the pain of being part of Tom Izzo's first senior class not to reach a Final Four weren't bad enough for Keith Appling and Adreian Payne, how it happened had to be even worse for the two Michigan State standouts.
Both seniors made critical defensive blunders in the final two minutes of the fourth-seeded Spartans' 60-54 Elite Eight loss to seventh-seeded UConn on Sunday afternoon at Madison Square Garden.
Michigan State was within two points with 1:45 to play when Shabazz Napier curled around a ball screen and found space to bury a mid-range jump shot because Payne seemed more concerned with a rolling Phillip Nolan than with UConn's leading scorer. Two free throws from Payne on the ensuing Michigan State possession gave the Spartans hope of overcoming that mistake, but Appling made an even more egregious one on UConn's next possession, over-contesting a pull-up 25-footer from Napier and sending him to the line for three foul shots.
Appling walked off the court with his hands on his head, having committed his fifth foul. Both he and Payne admitted the streak was something they thought about as Napier buried all three foul shots with 30.6 seconds left, icing the game for the Huskies and ending Michigan State's season one victory shy of the Final Four.
"As the game got closer and closer to ending, it was on my mind a lot, every huddle," Payne told reporters afterward. "And for us losing, and Keith and I, and not to make it is disappointing."
It's a testament to the program that Izzo has built at Michigan State that the Spartans hadn't experienced a Final Four drought of more than four years under him until now. Izzo has captured one national title and reached the Final Four six times: 1999, 2000, 2001, 2005, 2009 and 2010.
Michigan State had hoped to send Izzo to his seventh Final Four this season after beginning the year in the top three in every poll, but a flurry of injuries derailed the Spartans in the regular season. They got their full roster back just in time to win the Big Ten tournament and make another NCAA tournament push, but they picked a poor time for one of their worst games on Sunday, committing 16 turnovers and becoming too reliant on the 3-pointer.
Sophomore Gary Harris led Michigan State with 22 points. Payne had 13 points and nine rebounds, while Appling culminated a disappointing NCAA tournament with a two-point, four-turnover effort.
Neither of Michigan State's two seniors have anything to be ashamed about regarding their college careers. Payne improved all four years as a Spartan and molded himself into an NBA prospect with his ability to score in the paint and from the perimeter. Appling appeared headed for a brilliant senior season before suffering a midseason wrist injury from which he appeared to never fully recover.
Nonetheless, both will have to live with being the first two four-year players Izzo has coached that did not play in a Final Four.
Izzo did his best to make his two seniors feel better after the game.
"That streak doesn't mean anything to me, as dumb as it sounds," he told reporters. "Sometimes you got lucky. There were teams that we went to a Final Four with that weren't as good as some teams we didn't.
Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you know streaks are made to be broken."
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