Better make room on the bandwagon
DETROIT - It doesn't matter if this were a 7-, 27-, or 107-game series. Michigan State is better than Connecticut.
I couldn't bring myself to believe it. But they'd better make a little room on the Michigan State bandwagon, 'cause I'm hopping on now.
Tom Izzo's legendarily tough Spartans are on that proverbial mission, playing for themselves, playing for their school, playing for their battered state, and playing for the beleaguered city of Detroit, all of which would be nothing but cutesy rhetoric if they weren't able to back it up with some exemplary basketball.
Which they can.
Leading on the scoreboard for the preponderance of the game last night, Michigan State was able to make big plays throughout, answering every UConn challenge, major or minor, with defense, aggressive rebounding, and, surprisingly, a quick-strike offense that may be as explosive as anybody's except the team it just beat and the team it will play for the championship tomorrow night.
It was an 82-73 finale, and trust me when I tell you that was an accurate reflection of the difference between the clubs.
"It is hard times in Detroit," said senior guard Travis Walton, the Big Ten's Defensive Player of the Year. "So we just played hard. We played with the home-court advantage, and we wanted to run 'em. When you're in this type of atmosphere, you play for yourself, and your team, but you also play for your city and your state."
The funny thing is this would probably be an even better home-court advantage for the Spartans if these games were in a smaller venue. An NCAA-record crowd of 72,456 sounds wonderful, but the noise is actually swallowed up by the time it reaches the court. But the sight of 72,456 for a basketball game is pretty intimidating for a foe that knows most of them will be pulling for the other team.
It's a tribute to the raw talent and excellent coaching given to UConn's core players that the Huskies were able to hang with this team as long as they did. UConn still has some very good players. The problem for UConn last night - one of them, anyway - was that Tom Izzo had more of them.
Since losing Jerome Dyson to a knee injury in February, the Huskies have used a seven-man rotation. Izzo threw 11 men at UConn in the first half, and they all got on the stat sheet. OK, Draymond Green's contribution was a pair of personal fouls, but he would make his presence known before this game was over.
"I thought depth would be on our side," said Izzo. "We knew that coming in."
The final bench numbers were telling, if not downright staggering. Michigan State got 33 points and 14 rebounds from its bench, UConn had 7 and 6.
You know what Tony Soprano would say about that: "End of story."
The Spartans aren't exactly bereft of star talent. Sophomore Kalin Lucas is probably the Best Guard You Didn't Know, at least before last night, when he had 21 points, 5 assists, and some truly back-breaking plays. This kid is quick and fearless and more than willing to push it down your throat in transition. It makes little difference to him if he's got the ball after a rebound, a turnover, or even a made shot. He's coming.
And he's got people who will come with him. The Spartan big men all get up and down the floor, and as for wing men . . . say hello to sophomore Durrell Summers, a 6-4 swing type who threw down a second-half transition dunk over UConn's NBA-bound 6-9 forward Stanley Robinson that will surely make the Michigan State highlight film. I mean, all time. Not just this year.
Michigan State's Raymar Morgan (18 points, 9 rebounds in a redemptive performance following a bad second half of the season) had a nice view of that play, having sprung the bouncy lad with a deflection and tipping of the ball in Summers's direction.
"Durrell's play was definitely a freakish play," Morgan said. "He's a tremendous athlete, can jump out of the gym. I just tried to tip it. Luckily it went straight to him and he got a dunk."
You must get this in your head: Michigan State is now officially an up-tempo, here-we-come team. Izzo is getting a bit tired of educating people on this subject.
"I think everybody thinks we don't run in the Big Ten," he said. "A lot of people do [think that]. We just check pretty good in the Big Ten. So it makes it hard to do that."
This game was, in fact, a game of surge and countersurge throughout. But Michigan State always had the last word.
Let the record show that UConn did enough good things (like get the ball inside to Hasheem Thabeet, Jeff Adrien, and the foul-plagued Robinson) to be leading, 49-47, with 13:38 to go. That's when the aggressive Spartans hit them with three fast breaks in 48 seconds. Green got loose for a turnover-fueled sneakaway dunk. Lucas put a hellacious move on a backpedaling defender for a second hoop. And Chris Allen somehow steered a third one in, all in less than a minute.
Michigan State was up, 53-49, and the Huskies never adequately responded until they had fallen behind, 73-62.
A run of 7-0 put the Huskies back in the game and had the UConn crowd dreaming of a miracle comeback, especially when the Huskies were within 3 (74-71) on a Robinson dunk with a little more than one minute left.
In Ye Olden Days, Michigan State would have attempted to hang on, shoot the free throws and hope for the best. Well, no sooner had Robinson thrown down that monster jam than Lucas was pushing the ball upcourt and getting it to Summers, who converted an answering 3-point play. One rebound later, it was over. Let the free throw shooting begin.
And leading the cheers, of course, was a Michigan State man named Magic, and I know what he was thinking:
"Man, I'd love to play with those guys."