Michigan State riding waves of emotion as March begins
EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) Even for senior night, this felt like an unusually emotional game.
A four-year starter left with an injury, but one of his classmates picked up the slack by matching a career high in scoring. A less-heralded reserve came on and played significant minutes, winning over a crowd that approached the game with about the same urgency as the players.
The calendar has reached March, and at Michigan State, that's when angst is supposed to turn into adrenaline, allowing Tom Izzo's team to become a dangerous postseason foe no matter what transpired over the previous few months. Perhaps Wednesday night's win over Purdue was the start of another memorable run by the Spartans, but when it was over, Izzo sounded more relieved than anything.
Even by his standards, this season has been a roller coaster.
''It's not easy to win games in this league. This team isn't really as gifted as some we've had,'' he said. ''I feel pretty proud of what they have done.''
Now in his 20th season as Michigan State's coach, Izzo has taken the Spartans to six Final Fours and 17 consecutive NCAA Tournaments. The latter streak is probably safe after Michigan State edged Purdue 72-66. The Spartans (20-10, 11-6 Big Ten) wrap up the regular season at Indiana (19-11, 9-8) on Saturday.
Izzo is rarely shy about expressing his emotions, both on the sideline and in the postgame news conference, and this team has tested his patience. Michigan State lost overtime games to Notre Dame, Texas Southern and Maryland before January, and free throws have been a constant problem. The Spartans are last in the league in free throw percentage, and they shot 7 of 18 from the line in a home loss to Illinois on Feb. 7.
On the other hand, that game was Michigan State's only defeat in a seven-game stretch that took up much of February. The Spartans swept rival Michigan for the first time since 2010, and when Branden Dawson is leaping high in the air for rebounds and Denzel Valentine is connecting from the perimeter, Michigan State looks like a potential NCAA Tournament sleeper.
''We can fight through some stuff,'' forward Matt Costello said.
They certainly had to on Wednesday, when Dawson appeared to take a shot to the head and played only nine minutes. With one senior hurt, the Spartans turned to another: Guard Travis Trice matched his career high with 27 points. Then there was junior Colby Wollenman, who played 14 minutes in his longest stint since December, giving Michigan State a lift inside.
''I've made no bones about it. We are not as physically tough a team as we've been most of the years I've been here,'' Izzo said. ''Not all their fault, just kind of the makeup of our team. But to see them battle in a game that meant a lot to us, that was really, really encouraging.''
Two of Izzo's last three Final Four trips came when Michigan State was a No. 5 seed, and that's what helped him build a reputation as a coach whose teams peak at the right time. It remains to be seen if that will happen again. After winning six of seven, the Spartans dropped two in a row, including an overtime loss to Minnesota in which Michigan State blew a six-point lead in the final half-minute of regulation.
A loss to Purdue would have given Michigan State its longest losing streak of the season.
''It would have hurt, bad,'' Trice said. ''I'm glad it didn't happen. I'm glad we sucked it up and got a win.''
There was a bit of desperation in the air Wednesday. After Dawson left the game, Valentine briefly began hobbling around with a problem of his own, and it was as if the home crowd at the Breslin Center could sense what the Spartans were up against.
Izzo understood too, and in a season full of mood swings, the Michigan State coach reflected on his latest March win with an upbeat attitude toward the future.
''I'm probably prouder and happier than I'm acting, because I've got games left, but that was a gut check,'' Izzo said. ''That was a character-building game, and it builds character for this team for the rest of the season, maybe it builds character for them for the rest of their lives.''