In defensive battle, Michigan State reigns supreme over Virginia

Saturday March 29th, 2014

Michigan State's defense stifled Virginia, holding the Cavaliers to just 35 percent shooting.
Brad Penne/USA TODAY Sports

NEW YORK -- The sound came from somewhere deep in the building's past, two syllables that once meant so much to both the players who performed at Madison Square Garden and the patrons who paid to watch them at the corner of 7th Ave. and 32nd Street in New York City. Back then, four and a half decades ago, it was the NBA champion Knicks of Frazier, Reed, Bradley, DeBusschere and Barnett, all of whose retired numbers hang from high above the floor (next to that of their coach, Red Holzman, symbolized by 613, the number of his career victories).

On Friday night it was a college team from Virginia that momentarily inspired the same famous chant, those familiar syllables spilling down from new seats behind the team's bench in a refurbished arena, a fan base draped in orange, now in full throat:

De-fense! De-fense! De-fense! Sticklers must forgive Cavaliers fans for their quaint emphasis on the second of the two syllables, when historical correctness, in this building, calls for both syllables to be given the same vocal force.

Slightly more than 14 minutes remained in Friday night's NCAA East Regional semifinal game between Virginia, champion of the Atlantic Coast Conference and No. 1 seed in the region, and Big Ten champion Michigan State, the No. 4 seed, a contest matching like-minded combatants (the right word, in this case). Each believes in the physical purity of the contested pass and the challenged shot and the emotional strain that a good night's defense places on an opponent. They all knew what it would be like. "It was really gonna kind of be just like a bloodbath," said Virginia senior guard Joe Harris.

At this moment, it was Virginia that had seized control of the game, turning a 31-27 halftime deficit into a 36-32 lead. Michigan State had not made a field goal since the final 28 seconds of the first half, and now as that De-fense chant filled the Garden air, the clock ticked down toward 13 minutes, extending the field goal drought to nearly seven minutes.

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"Looking at our guys' faces, something was missing," Michigan State assistant coach Dane Fife said after the game. "It takes a toll on you to play a game where every pass you make has to be deliberate, and every shot has to be a good shot."

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo echoed his fellow coach. "It was difficult. The place was hopping. I thought it was a hell of an atmosphere in there."

And it was at this moment that Michigan State answered the chant and took control of the game. The Spartans responded first with a 17-6 run that was constructed in equal parts on the pillars of a defensive lockdown that was every bit as stifling as Virginia's had been, and also on a spurt of offensive creativity that Virginia could not consistently match. Sparty took a 51-44 lead with 5:26 to play and when Virginia rallied to tie the game at 51 with 1:51 left, it was Michigan State's 6-foot-10 senior forward Adreian Payne who put the Spartans back in control with two plays you'd expect a guard to make: A three-point basket and a lob pass for a dunk by junior forward Branden Dawson, who led the Spartans with 24 points.

In the final minute of the game, Virginia twice closed within two points and twice Michigan converted free throws to stay clear for a 61-59 victory.

On Sunday afternoon, they will play No. 7 seed Connecticut for a place in the Final Four. With a victory, Michigan State's senior class of Payne and point guard Keith Appling can avoid becoming the first four-year players in Izzo's 18 years as Michigan State head coach to not play in at least one Final Four (a truly remarkable statistic). "That's something we talk about almost every day," said Dawson, "getting [Appling] and Keith to a Final Four."

On Friday night, the next step on that road began with a Dawson dunk with 13:21 to play, but Virginia's Harris answered with a long two-point basket. With just over 10 minutes left, Payne threw down a left-handed dunk on a pass from Dawson (their roles would be improbably reversed nine minutes later), the start of a 13-2 Michigan State run. Dawson scored in the lane to tie with game at 40-40 and with 9:08 left, the Spartans' junior guard Travis Trice drilled a wide-open three-pointer on a fast-break pull-up. "To tell you the truth, I kind of leaked out on that one," said Trice. "I was at the three-point line and nobody was on me."

Appling said of the shot, "I'm glad he made it, because if he had missed it, he probably wouldn't have played a minute for the rest of the tournament."

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Payne answered two Virginia free throws with a dunk and scowling scream to keep the Spartans' lead at three points. Then, with just under six minutes to play, Appling, who has struggled since injuring his right wrist in February, slashed across the lane and banked home a left-handed shot that extended the Michigan State margin to five. It was Appling's only basket of the night, and he finished the play on his back in the corner of the floor.

"I saw an opening,'' Appling said. "And it was really the first time I saw an opening all night. They do such a good job of packing it in. I wound up over in the cheap seats."

Dawson pushed Michigan State's lead to seven points with two free throws at 5:25, but the Cavaliers, whose crowd was as vocal as nearby Connecticut's had been in the opener, crawled all the way back to tie it on sophomore guard Justin Anderson's three-pointer from the left corner with 1:51 left.

Payne made a three-pointer 20 seconds later and after Virginia sophomore Malcolm Brogdon missed a jumper, it was Payne who fed Dawson with a lob for a dunk to give the Spartans a five-point lead with 52 seconds to play. How often had the big man Payne lobbed to the 6-foot-6 Dawson? "That was really the first time," said Dawson. "I was kind of nervous when Adreian threw it, because I thought it was going to hit the rim."

Dawson, who also had 10 rebounds to go with his 24 points, was the most significant of several injured Spartans in the middle of the season, when Michigan State lost seven of 12 games from late January into early March. Dawson broke a bone in his right hand against Indiana on Jan. 21 and didn't play again until March 1.

"I was in the gym every day, even with the injury,'' said Dawson. Of his energy and athleticism Izzo says "Branden is s freak athlete, both strength and athletic ability, [and a] very, very smart player."

But if in the end it was offensive perseverance and delivery that defined Michigan State's win, it was also defense that enabled it. To wit, Spartans shot 44.7 percent for the game and held Virginia to 35.1 percent, beating the Cavaliers at their strength.

"Whoever imposed their will would win the game," said Virginia's Brogdon. "That's what happened here. Michigan State imposed their will more."

Moments after the game, Izzo leaned against a concrete wall in the belly of the Garden. "They shot 35 percent," he noted. "I guess that means we're not a bad defensive team."

Sacred words in this building, in this church of basketball. For a night anyway.

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