SYRACUSE, N.Y.—Travis Trice had just scored 24 points in a Sweet 16 victory over Oklahoma, earning not only raucous adoration from a green swell of Michigan State fans including Magic Johnson, but also an Elite Eight game on Sunday. Yet his best news of the night was still to come. In his post-game TV interview with TBS, reporter Allie LaForce told him that his alma mater, Wayne High in Huber Heights, Ohio, had won its state semifinal game in overtime shortly after the Spartans’ game had tipped off. The Wayne Warriors would be playing the next night for not only the school’s first Division I title but the first for Trice’s father, Travis, the team’s coach, and Trice’s brothers D’mitrik (the team’s senior point guard) and Isaiah (a sophomore guard on the team).
“Shoot, I was more happy about them winning than us, to be honest with you,” Travis said later, glowing as he strode back to the locker room from the post-game press conference. “I’m so close with my family. As a big brother, you want your siblings to do better than you. I never made it to a state championship my four years.”
Trice has never made it to a Final Four in his four years as a Spartan either, falling in last year’s Elite Eight and in the Sweet 16 twice before that, and that he has a chance to add further to a weekend of family firsts is no one’s doing more than his. Trice was brilliant in the Spartans’ 62-58 win over the Sooners, a one-man lifeline for an offense that spent much of the first half flailing and its cool-headed closer in the final minutes that too often was his team’s undoing. It is the latest installment of a month in which he has resuscitated a team many left for dead in February and now finds itself one win away from playing in April.
“Ever since the Big Ten tournament he’s been playing out of his mind,” said junior guard Bryn Forbes. “That’s the reason we are where we are right now.”
Tom Izzo had said this week that he expected the game to be a “track meet,” the “reverse-opposite” of last Sunday’s win over Virginia, a plodding No. 2 seed for whom the Spartans prepared by rejiggering their defense, sagging their guards and having their bigs mind the careful balance between help defense and recovery. The talk of the week was how Izzo (who is 19-4 on the second game of an NCAA tournament weekend, when teams have less than two days to prepare) had further bolstered his growing legend for short-turnaround ingenuity.
On Monday, he gushed to his team about relishing the trip to the opposite end of the pace spectrum, that the sudden shift from defending Virginia’s deliberate, circular offense to the Sooners’ unrelenting upcourt push was one of the reasons March is his favorite time of year. Practices were packed with transition defense, up to a half hour each day, twice the usual amount in some players’ estimates, the Spartans sprinting back ceaselessly into another recalibration.
And yet Michigan State were staggered as the Sooners stampeded up the floor at the first sight of a loose ball or potential defensive rebound. Oklahoma began the game 8-of-11 from the floor thanks to fast breaks and early-possession attacks against an unsettled Spartans defense. Within six minutes the Sooners led by 10, winning scores of for 50-50 balls and squeezing Denzel Valentine and Branden Dawson into 3-of-13 shooting combined in the first half.
“It felt like we were getting beat up ... like they were just killing us,” Forbes said. “Our transition defense early was terrible. Second half they still scored some but we stepped it up. We were a whole different team.”
Izzo called the first-half effort “embarrassing” and made as much clear to his players in the halftime locker room. To hear the players tell it, the ensuing turnaround was less a result any tinkering by Izzo than of a sense of urgency he instilled with a question: Is this how the Spartans wanted to go out? “We just pulled together as a team, to be honest,” said junior forward Matt Costello. “That was the change.”
Earlier this week Izzo had said that the Spartans “can play racehorse or smash mouth” and it was a shift from the former to the latter that helped shift the game into their favor as well. After a first half played at a pace a bit beyond brisk—an energy level somewhat obscured by its 31-27 score—Michigan State bogged the second half with long possessions to more successful ends, a twofold means of undoing Oklahoma.
“We had to guard longer,” said Sooners assistant Chris Crutchfield. “I don't know if it was strategic. But it worked out their way. We didn't get any stops ... We needed stops to run.”
They were denied them not only by Trice but by Valentine and Dawson, each of whom hit critical buckets during a stretch in the middle of the second half in which the Spartans seemed to truly wrest control. Valentine said after that the first half “felt like it was my first time playing basketball,” likening it to a dream from which he had to awake, and by the time he scored two consecutive game-tying baskets he had riled the Carrier Dome into enough of a frenzy that Dawson soon followed with his lone offensive outburst of the night—a pair of short jumpers in the lane—to set up a final five minutes in which Trice scored 9 of Michigan State’s 11 points to set up Sunday’s date with No. 4 Louisville.
Trice also set up a family reunion. Like last weekend when the Spartans were in Charlotte, the Trices will make the overnight drive from Ohio after Wayne High’s game to attend Michigan State’s. The Warriors’s game begins at 8:30 p.m., after which the family will have a seven-hour trek from Columbus to Syracuse for Sunday’s 2:20 tip-off time. It is a short turnaround too for the Spartans, who did not leave the arena until well after 1 a.m. Saturday. It is almost identical circumstances to Michigan State’s second weekend of last year’s NCAA tournament, of which Izzo said he did “a terrible job” in preparing for the team’s subsequent loss to Connecticut.
Louisville’s pressure and matchup zone will present an intriguing challenge for the second-game maestro, who will have some 36 hours to prepare. His Spartans will also need to use that time to rest and recover from what was ultimately part track meet and part demolition derby. “It was a scrappy, nasty game,” Costello said in the locker room, illustrating this when missed a reporter’s question while shifting and wincing in his plastic chair. “Sorry,” the forward said. “My butt hurts.” It had spent a good chunk of the night being kicked, at least metaphorically, a fact that even in victory Costello had not let out of sight.
“Oklahoma was ready to go and we were not, so we gotta figure that out,” he said. He was asked how and his tone, like his team, hardened. “We’ll figure it out,” he offered, sternly. The clock ticks.