Despite the series of blowouts in Denver this week, Michigan State knew its matchup against Pittsburgh wasn't going to be easy. In fact, the Spartans were prepared for something downright ugly.
"We knew it was going to be like a boxing match," said Marquis Gray, a 6-foot-8 senior forward. "You know -- 12 rounds, whichever team can fight the hardest and lock in the little stuff, pay attention to the details."
But the fight never came down to a knockout punch, like say, a buzzer-beater with a one-point spread. It didn't even come down to the last round, considering that Michigan State was up by seven points with one minute to go and won 65-54.
The big, bad Pittsburgh panthers were simply outplayed. They made just 11.8 percent of their three-pointers, compared with Michigan State's 60 percent, and although the Panthers had 52 field-goal attempts -- the same number as the Spartans -- they made seven fewer baskets. Partner that up with Michigan State's 33 rebounds and Pittsburgh's 22, and it's a wonder the game felt as intense as it did inside the walls of the Pepsi Center.
"You know, we really focused on being tough and physical," said Drew Naymick, a 6-10 center who was on Michigan State's 2005 team that advanced to the Final Four. "A lot of their offense was based on things like dribble penetration and so we changed things up a bit."
The two teams' regular season stats are comparable. Michigan State averaged 70.1 points a game and held opponents to a 60.1. Pittsburgh put up about 74.4 points and gave up 65.1. Both teams had tournament experience.
So what made the difference Saturday tonight?
"Before the game, Coach even said that he was looking at our stats and theirs and that they are almost exactly identical," says Gray. "There might be a couple of things here or there, but everything was close."
Ask any Michigan State player, and they'll say that there was one word drilled into their minds about what they'd have to be in order to beat the Panthers -- aggressive.
"There have been questions this year about the toughness of this team, you know, how physical we can be," says Drew Neizel, a 6-0 senior guard who led the Spartans with 21 points against the Panthers. "I think Pittsburgh is one of the most physical teams in the country with their big guys inside. ... We did a great job of matching their physical play. We stayed aggressive. We didn't back down."
Pittsburgh's Levance Fields, who with 19 points had his best game since returning from a foot injury in February, felt the brunt of that aggressiveness when a Neizel reach-in sent him crashing into Michigan State's Sean Lucas, then falling to the floor in pain.
Neizel, who scored a team-high 21 points and had seven rebounds, wasn't always consistent during the regular season. But his teammates have seen a change in him in the tournament.
"Tonight, Drew went playground," says Gray, laughing in the team's locker room with the West Coast games playing on a flat screen TV in front of him. "On the playground, anything goes -- between the legs, behind the back, fade away three, reverse lay-up with the opposite hand. Anything goes on the playground, and Drew threw out some of those playground tricks tonight."
It was those tricks, but even more, a relentless Michigan State defense and solid three-point shooting that helped the Spartans pave the road to Charlotte. And seniors like Gray, Naymick and Neitzel can only hope that this year the journey doesn't end there.