Virginia earned a number one seed in the NCAA tournament this season in large part because of its defense. But it was Michigan State’s defensive effort that trumped the Cavaliers, as the Spartans moved into the Elite Eight win a 61-59 win over UVA at Madison Square Garden.
Tom Izzo’s team was swarming, diving for loose balls and just plain making it hard for Virginia to do anything on Friday as the Cavaliers shot just 35 percent on the night. The Spartans have a way of making even extremely disciplined and well-coached teams look panicked and flustered. And there's no doubt Virginia was one of the best coached teams in college basketball this season.
A 13-2 run late in the second half seemed to put the game right in MSU's hands, but Virginia battled back to tie it at 51 on a Justin Anderson three with 1:53 to play. London Perrantes hit a three to cut the lead to one with a touch over a second to play after a back-and-forth of free throws, but time wasn't on the Cavaliers' side, and the desperation heave fell short.
What makes Virginia so tough defensively is that the Cavaliers are often where an opponent is trying to drive before they get even decide that’s where they want to go. For long stretches of the game, it looked like Virginia had more than five players on the floor. There were white jerseys everywhere.
So even though Michigan State can execute teams into oblivion -- and was able to do so against Virginia enough times to get the win -- even the often mythic Spartans often looked like mere mortals. MSU went over six minutes without a field goal in the first half, as the Virginia defense amped up the pressure. The Cavaliers kept it up early in the second half, forcing another four-plus minute field goal drought by the Spartans that was finally broken by a Branden Dawson follow slam.
In transition, it was a different story. When Virginia left shots short or had its back turned, the Spartans sensed vulnerability. The perfect example was on a Travis Trice three that put MSU up 43-40 with 9:08 to play.
Even with the tough packline, the Spartans still had a major advantage down low. The combination of Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson was able to move guys like Akil Mitchell and Mike Tobey around at will when they weren’t surrounded by the packline. The pair combined for 40 points on 14-of-28 shooting, and a Payne-to-Dawson slam put the Spartans up by five with under a minute to go.
Michigan State was a popular pick to win it all when the brackets were announced, and the Spartans are making those people look smart. They're deep, experienced and talented. And they're a win away from getting Tom Izzo back in the Final Four once again.
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