SPOKANE, WASH -- New Mexico State tried to beat Michigan State on Friday.
Not defeat them. Not upset the fifth-seeded Spartans. But hold and check and, at times, bludgeon their way to victory.
It almost worked. There was a lot going in 12th-seeded New Mexico State's favor: A trio of officials who waited too long to wrestle control of the game; superior size and length up front; and several Spartans either limping or out of the game because of injuries.
But to the pleasure of those who like their basketball to resemble something other than an MMA bout, Michigan State prevailed 70-67 at Spokane War Memorial Arena.
There was an exciting finish, including two three-point attempts in the final seconds that fell short, and a little controversy, particularly regarding a whistle for a debatable lane violation that allowed the Spartans to push their lead to three with 18 seconds left. But those are the small details.
The big picture was this: After attempting to play with the Spartans in the first half, New Mexico State found itself trailing by 13 because of the brilliance of Kalin Lucas (25 points) and the Spartans' superior ball movement. So New Mexico State coach Marvin Menzies came out of the break with a plan to pound the ball inside, especially to 6-11 sophomore Hamidu Rahman, and to deny Lucas the ball by any means possible -- including, it seemed at times, aggravated assault.
It worked, as Rahman netted eight quick points and the Aggies outscored the Spartans 24-10 to start the second half.
"We've got a lot of guys beat up," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "We were kind of put in a bizarre spot with the foul trouble, the injures and wearing guys down."
Lucas left the game briefly in the second half with a twisted ankle. Guard Chris Allen exited and did not return after also injuring an ankle. Despite those hindrances, Michigan State traded baskets with New Mexico State the rest of the way and then converted in the final minutes when the Aggies could not.
"They are really physical and we just tried to keep our composure," forward Raymar Morgan said. "They came at us and we had to just survive the game."
Survive is the appropriate word.
Spartans fans will wonder if this victory signals that the team has put their tumultuous regular season -- which included suspensions and general unrest -- behind them. Izzo hinted at that in his postgame remarks. "We had a good week of practice and in the first half, the way the ball was moving, we looked like the team I've been saying we could be," he said. He also praised Lucas, of whom he has been critical.
At the same time, the way the Aggies dominated in the paint in the second half is a blueprint for how to beat Michigan State. Had the Aggies had a little more luck at the end or a just little more skill to go with their aggression, they would likely have won.