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Michigan State Spartans Advance to Elite Eight with 61-59 Win Over Great Virginia Cavalier Team

Michigan State Spartans Advance to Elite Eight with 61-59 Win Over Great Virginia Cavalier Team

Madison Square Garden

New York, New York

It didn’t take long tonight sitting courtside to understand that this hallowed arena that had held so many ICONIC sporting events was about to get another. What wasn’t clear was whether it would be one of the best basketball games or boxing matches. Tom Izzo has complained about officiating all year and rightfully so, but tonight was not such a night. Sure every game you can point at mistakes from every coach, player or zebra.

Tonight this was just a brutal basketball game and by brutal I mean it was lovely. UVA seemed to get more calls, but that happened when they kept pounding inside and the Spartans were looking for jump shots. Unfortunately that has been a familiar tone this season.

Izzo had nothing but praise for the Cavaliers. He said, “Tony Bennett has done an incredible job in a few years there, and his team played so hard and physical and tough. And as he said to me, and I agree with him, it's the way the game should be played. These guys might not agree and his guys might not agree, but I thought their fans, too, they had a lot of people here. It was almost like a home game.” Tom Izzo improved to 42-15 (.737) in the NCAA Tournament.

After taking a four-point halftime lead, Michigan State went the first 6:41 of the second half without a made field goal.

Cavalier head coach Tony Bennett also talked about the physicality. “it was physical. You could see that. I thought we were a little they sped us up early. We were a little impatient, and then I think we got into our groove defensively late in the first half, and even offensively we started moving the ball better. They're very good defensively. I thought that we had trouble scoring inside.”

Branden Dawson led your Spartans with a double double, his sixth of the year. He dropped in 24 points and added 10 boards. He also had one assist. Adreian Payne added 16 points, five rebounds and two assists. Branden Dawson scored 20-plus points for the third time this season, and the second consecutive game. After a career-high 26 points against Harvard in his last game, Dawson scored 24 points against the Cavaliers. Dawson became the first Spartan to record 20-plus points in consecutive NCAA Tournament games since Maurice Ager in 2005 (21 vs. Kentucky,24 vs. North Carolina).

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The stunning stat is that NO OTHER Spartans were in double digits in scoring or rebounds. Gary Harris had six points and Travis Trice had five. Keith Appling only had two.

The Spartans shot only 45% but they held a good Cavalier team to 35% shooting on the evening. The Spartans had a manageable 10 turnovers while UVA only had six, and the rebounding battle was won by the Cavaliers 35-32.

Cavalier star Joe Harris was pure class in defeat. This Spartan team earned his respect. “Michigan State's a very solid defensive team. Very similar to us, they just made everything, everything tough on you, they make you earn every basket and I just thought they did a good job being in gaps, helping one another, it seems like they did a good job of just flooding. And they're a good help defensive team.”

But the Spartan toughness that has been a hallmark of Izzo success for nearly two decades showed up again tonight. Credit the Cavs it was a great game, but when they landed their best punches the Spartans kept coming. Michigan State advances to its first Elite Eight since 2010 and its eighth Elite Eight since 1985.

Branden Dawson was proud of how his team stood strong. “Yes, when those guys went on their run, Coach talked about us just staying poised. And I think it was very important for us to do that. We didn't start pointing fingers. We stayed together, and I think guys like Adreian Payne, Keith Appling and Denzel, they just kept us up, kept us in the game and we kept our poise and we just didn't give up.”

The relentless regular and tournament champions of the ACC are outstanding. Outside of maybe Michigan that was the best team the Spartans have faced all year. I asked Denzel Valentine about it, he paused and said, “Them and Michigan yes, those are the two best teams we have faced.”

Beating this opponent is a major achievement. Branden Dawson said, “Well, Virginia is a very, very, very tough team. Those guys just never gave up. Coming into this game Coach, he told us that we better be ready for a dogfight. That's what it was. When they went on that run, like I said before, we just never lost our poise. We stayed together. We didn't point any fingers. We just stayed positive. And like I said, Virginia's definitely a tough team, one of the tough teams we have played all year. So got to give credit to those guys.”

Even Adreian Payne praised a worthy opponent. “We knew that they were going to be a good game, and we knew that they were going to go on a run. They came out in the first half with a lot of energy, and they hit us in the mouth. And we just had to stay together and that's what we did. We just tried to fight through it. And once we got everybody rolling and going, then we just tried to continue to keep the lead and just keep fighting from there.”

Coach Bennett wanted to make it clear that his team didn’t lose to a slouch. He thinks these Spartans are on a roll. “When you're in a game like this, with this much at stake at this level, plays have to be made, whether it's big shots hit or just a big block or something. They did that. We had a little trouble down the stretch doing that. A couple times we broke down and they made us pay, but they're used to winning. They have obviously those guys, the experience, and they are a physical team. I think they're playing the best ball. Dawson makes all the difference; he did today. He was a matchup problem for us. That's where Anthony, I think had he been healthy, could have been better on him. I'm not saying he would have shut him down, but we would get a little more punch offensively with that, but he really he was good.”

Michigan State will face UConn Sunday for a berth in the Final Four. UConn leads the all-time series 3-2, taking the last two matchups. The two squads met in the 2009 National Semifinals, with the Spartans prevailing 82-73. The game on Sunday will tip on CBS at 2:20 PM.