DETROIT - The possession that cinched it, fittingly enough, began with a steal. Michigan State guard Travis Walton, the soul of a team that clawed its way to the Final Four with defense, grit and bloodied bodies, stripped Connecticut forward Stanley Robinson. The strip set up a Hail Mary from guard Kalin Lucas to forward Raymar Morgan, who jammed the ball home with a scream with 3:18 remaining Saturday in the national semifinal game.
The next sound was a whistle confirming UConn coach Jim Calhoun's timeout call, but no amount of coaching could help the Huskies. The Spartans had bent yet another team to their will. Thirty years after Earvin Johnson led Michigan State to its first national title in a game that changed college basketball forever, Johnson's alma mater has a chance to produce a little more magic. Playing 92 miles from campus in front of a Final Four-record crowd clad mostly in green and white, the Spartans beat Connecticut, 82-73, to advance to the national title game (
The win provided a brief moment of joy for a state that has suffered more than any other from the nation's recent economic downturn. The week began with news that Detroit-based General Motors, one of the state's largest employers, may have to file for bankruptcy. Thanks to the Spartans, the week ended with much happier news.
"We are the blue-collar team. This is the blue-collar city," said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, a Michigan native who has led teams to the Final Four five times since taking over the program in 1995. "It was just amazing, amazing to walk out of that tunnel. ... Yes, there were a lot of Michigan State fans in there. I think other people thought it was an incredible setting. I am appreciative for that. I'm appreciative for the people. I hope we were a ray of sunshine, a distraction for them, diversion, anything else we can be."
Lucas scored 21 to lead Michigan State, and the Spartans racked up 11 steals. Center Hasheem Thabeet scored 17 to lead the Huskies, who shot 35.3 percent in the second half. Michigan State's bench outscored UConn's bench, 33-7. "We thought we had depth over them," Izzo said. "That's why we had to run and wanted to run."
The running seemed to surprise the Huskies, who expected a Big Ten slog based on the Michigan State games they watched in preparation for Saturday.
"In all honesty, and I truly, truly believe this, they played different," UConn coach Jim Calhoun said. "We played Purdue. We played Michigan. We beat Wisconsin by 20. We've seen teams they played. We saw tapes of the games. And that's a different team. That's a different team. And they were different against Louisville. Special. They were close to a special team tonight."
Michigan State also got 18 points and nine rebounds from Morgan, who played just 23 minutes combined against Kansas and Louisville last weekend. A flailing elbow from a Jayhawk broke Morgan's nose early in the second half of the Kansas game. Against Louisville, Morgan struggled with the mask he had to wear to protect his nose. Saturday, Morgan seemed more comfortable with his mask. "Raymar, keep wearing the mask, please," Lucas joked to his teammate after the win.
The Spartans will play in the NCAA title game for the first time since 2000, when a team led by Mateen Cleaves and Morris Peterson beat Florida in Indianapolis to claim the school's second national title. Michigan State will face North Carolina on Monday night.
Whoever faces the Spartans had better come prepared for a fight. Much like last week's Midwest Region final win against Louisville, Michigan State kept the score close for 25 minutes. The teams traded baskets for most of the first half. After UConn erased an early seven-point deficit, neither team trailed by more than five for the remainder of the half, and Michigan State went into the break up 38-36. They also nearly came to blows; with 1:55 remaining, Spartans Travis Walton and Marquise Gray squared off with Huskies Hasheem Thabeet and Jeff Adrien after Walton committed a hard foul on Adrien. Both coaches took the floor as officials separated the players. Officials spent several minutes watching a replay of the fracas on a courtside video monitor, but they elected not to charge anyone with a technical foul.
As time dwindled, the Spartans' constant harassment ground down the Huskies. A pair of fast-break baskets - one set up by a steal - seven minutes into the second half gave the Spartans a lead they never would relinquish. With 5:55 remaining, Michigan State guard Durrell Summers, a Detroit native, blasted down the court on a fast break, elevated and threw down a vicious one-handed slam in the face of UConn's Stanley Robinson. The dunk gave the Spartans a 10-point lead, and it seemed to crush the Huskies' spirits. "We saw their heads kind of drop a little bit," Summers said.
UConn would cut Michigan State's lead to 73-69 on an unusual four-point possession with 1:26 remaining that included a Thabeet layup, a loose-ball foul that knocked Thabeet from the game briefly and a pair of free throws by substitute Craig Austrie, but Summers converted a three-point play 26 seconds later.
After the clock struck zero, Michigan State players circled the court, saluting a crowd that never stopped roaring from tip-off to buzzer. For a suffering state in dire need of any kind of hope, the Spartans provided a reason to cheer.
"We're trying to win this for the whole state of Michigan and the city of Detroit just to show them something positive," Summers said. "The city has kind of been on a downslide here. We're just trying to lift everybody up."