SYRACUSE, N.Y.—The familiar sight of Michigan State players climbing a ladder to cut down the nets on their way to the Final Four blurs the complication of the journey there. The familiar din of Spartans fans chanting—“Go Green! Go White!”—drowns out the pessimism that accompanied Michigan State here. The familiar clichés that accompany a Tom Izzo Final Four trip—Grit! Toughness! Determination!—devalue the distinct narrative of this group.
Seventh-seeded Michigan State outslugged and outlasted fourth-seeded Louisville in overtime, 76-70, on Sunday in the East Regional final at the Carrier Dome. The Spartans held the Cardinals to six field goals over the game’s final 25 minutes and won thanks to a missed Louisville free throw in regulation and a hyper-athletic tip-in basket by senior Branden Dawson in overtime. They also held Louisville’s leading scorer without a field goal for nearly 29 minutes, played defense with the tenacity of prison guards and left the Cardinals sick, bloodied and whispering about opportunities lost.
The result is certainly familiar by now, as this is the seventh trip to the Final Four for Izzo. He is now 7-2 in regional finals, including 2-0 against Rick Pitino. And the sign that best sums up this team’s belief came from Julie Trice, the mother of Michigan State star Travis Trice. After the game, she unfurled a blue banner that said, “You Should Be Here.”
It would have been hard to say that as recently as three weeks ago. The Spartans lost to Texas Southern at home in December, at Nebraska in January and at home to Illinois in February, and found themselves on the NCAA tournament bubble as recently as March 4 after back-to-back losses to Minnesota and Wisconsin. “This is a bigger banner,” Izzo said, comparing his Final Four trips. “I don't know if it will be in size, but it will be in meaning.”
This is Michigan State’s first Final Four berth since 2010 and comes one year after last year's seniors—who lost in the Elite Eight to Connecticut—became the first full class under Izzo not to get that far in their careers. This year's Spartans started a new streak, such a surprising development that athletic director Mark Hollis said some of his staff members planned vacations for Final Four weekend. A little more than three weeks later, those same staff members are scrambling to change their plans. “[The team] stuck together when the NIT was a possibility,” Hollis said. “Tom cries every time he makes the Final Four. This is the first time I’ve cried. That tells you this one is a little more special.”
This team’s story starts with the senior duo of Trice and Dawson, former AAU teammates who scored the Spartans' final four points. Dawson’s pivotal tip-in with 28 seconds left in overtime pushed the lead to 74-70 and Trice's two free throws sealed the win. Dawson had nine points, 11 rebounds and four blocks, while Trice finished with 17 points and five assists.
Trice also capped off a winning weekend for his family that practically feels scripted. His father, also named Travis, coached Wayne High in Huber Heights, Ohio, to the state championship on Saturday night. Travis and Julie drove nearly eight hours overnight to Syracuse from Dayton after the win, arriving after sunrise. They napped for a few hours and then watched their son clinch the regional's Most Outstanding Player honors with a gutsy performance. “This has been the proudest weekend of my life,” the younger Trice said afterward.
While the No. 7 Spartans were the lowest-seeded team remaining in the tournament entering the Elite Eight, it was hard to cast them as complete underdogs. In fact, Michigan State entered the day favored by 2.5 points. What no one saw, though, was how Izzo engineers the guts of these short-turnaround weekends. That process took place in a conference room at the Crowne Plaza in Syracuse, a circular model hotel straight from a 1970s architecture handbook. Amid the empty coffee cups, piles of scouting reports and enough laptops for a computer lab, the Spartans devised the game plans that has Izzo rivaling the St. Patrick’s Day Leprechaun for the most famous diminutive March icon. By the end of the weekend, the so-called “War Room” got so disheveled that a Crowne Plaza employee scolded the Michigan State staff as she attempted to prepare for breakfast on Sunday morning. The staff didn’t mind; they hear worse every day.
In the War Room, the Spartans coaches came up with a key adjustment that allowed them to last through the weekend. They guarded Oklahoma power forward TaShawn Thomas and Louisville power forward Montrezl Harrell with their centers, Gavin Schilling and Matt Costello. Typically, those players guard the opposition’s center. Early on Sunday, the move appeared to backfire, as Harrell started the game 6 for 7 from the field and looked like a smooth and nimble NBA prospect. But after scoring 12 of Louisville’s first 19 points in the game’s opening 11 minutes, Harrell missed his final five field goal attempts and finished 4 for 9 from the free throw line. Michigan State somehow found a way to turn off the motor on Harrell, Louisville’s beacon of energy and emotion.
He wasn’t the only one who was worn out, as Louisville managed just six field goals in the second half and overtime combined. Three of those came on pick-6 style steal-and-layups by Terry Rozier (6-for-23 shooting), meaning that the Cardinals scored just three field goals in in their half-court offense in 25 minutes. They shot 20% in the second half, 14% in overtime and had just one assist over that span. “We got away from what we were doing in the first half,” Harrell said. “When we started to go one-on-one in the second half it hurt us.”
Thanks to a gutsy performance by senior Wayne Blackshear, the Cards had a chance to win in regulation. He finished with 28 points on just 13 shots, despite getting sick at halftime. Blackshear, who said the weather change from warm Louisville to freezing Syracuse bothered his asthma, puked up Gatorade. “Wayne was throwing up at halftime like no player I’d ever seen,” Pitino said.
Blackshear willed the Cardinals back into the game, even after having to leave with a bloody nose on a hard foul from Costello and playing the final few minutes with a wad of cotton in his right nostril. He cut the Michigan State lead to one with a threee-pointer with 1:48 remaining and followed that with two free throws 35 seconds later that briefly put Louisville in front, 64-63. The Spartans reclaimed the lead on a bank shot by Marvin Clark Jr., but when Clark missed two subsequent free throws with 22 seconds to play, the Cardinals had a chance to win. Rozier missed a runner, but center Mangok Mathiang grabbed the offensive rebound and got fouled with 4.7 seconds left. Mathiang, a 48% free throw shooter, bounced his first shot high off the back rim, and it somehow settled in the basket to tie the game. He missed the second shot off the back rim, leading to a collective exhale and a dominating overtime for Michigan State.
“Every cliché comes to mind,” Spartans assistant coach Dane Fife said. “This group, legitimately, everyone likes each other. This group holds each other accountable every day.”
We get the point. Fife recalled Trice breaking the huddle in the preseason by saying, “Indy.” He chuckled at the time, as he felt like the group had no idea what it would take to get there. In the buzz of the winner’s locker room, as he reflected on Michigan State’s latest magical March, a staff member walked around with a white NCAA-logoed box asking over the din, “Where’s the trophy?”
The answer of course, is that it’s heading back to where no one expected. Which made the journey the sweetest one Izzo has traveled yet.