Izzo, Spartans make more March Magic
ST. LOUIS – The most iconic player in Michigan State basketball history embraced the soon-to-be Hall of Fame coach and whispered in his ear.
Magic Johnson hugged Tom Izzo and offered his congratulations after the Spartans had reached their sixth Final Four in 12 years, outlasting Tennessee 70-69 in a Midwest Regional final thriller Sunday at the Edward Jones Dome.
Johnson’s words were direct and simple.
“I’m proud of you,” he told Izzo. “Now you can worry about next week.”
Michigan State (28-8) plays on in the national semifinals next Saturday in Indianapolis because of Izzo’s game management and direction of his players. A team that appeared fractured at some junctures this season by multiple benchings to Durrell Summers and injuries to Kalin Lucas, Delvon Roe and Chris Allen isn’t fully healed, but is getting it done.
As has been the case a half-dozen times before, Izzo has everyone gelling at the perfect time. He joins Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and UCLA’s John Wooden as the only coaches to take six teams this far over this short of a span.
“Tom Izzo does his best job every year during the NCAA tournament,” Johnson said as reporters swarmed. “This team is representative of him.”
In a game that came down to the final frenetic seconds, Izzo’s troops were cooler, calmer and more collected than the Volunteers. The score was tied 10 times. The Spartans’ biggest lead was eight points, Tennessee’s six.
Michigan State met its match defensively and on the glass in Tennessee. The Volunteers led 41-39 at the half. But in the end, the Spartans executed and the Vols failed.
When Tennessee’s Scotty Hopson made one of two free throws with 11 seconds remaining, it was 69 all.
Izzo called timeout to set up a play and Draymond Green wound up with the ball in his hands. Green spotted a wide-open Raymar Morgan under the basket and delivered a hard pass. Morgan went to the hoop and was fouled by J.P. Prince.
Morgan icily knocked down the first free throw and purposely missed the second, trying to kill the clock. Tennessee called timeout with 1.6 seconds left, but a desperation heave by Prince never made it to the basket as time expired.
Izzo’s strategy worked. The game was over. The Sparty party was on.
A wild celebration ensued at midcourt as well as a stream of tears. Izzo was shaking hands all over press row, his eyes welling with emotion. He slapped a high five with a beaming Green. Fill-in point guard Korie Lucious was bawling. Lucas hobbled around on crutches, smiling widely.
Everyone got in on the jubilation.
Much as they had done during game time.
“I’m proud of these guys,” Izzo said. “I just can’t tell you what we’ve been through with the injuries. Again Delvon, Chris and Korie I thought they did a great job dogging them all day.
“Durrell came through. But it was Ray and Day-Day too. They’re our rocks.”
Summers, the regional’s most outstanding player, was the catalyst, knocking down clutch shot after clutch shot and finishing with 21 points and four rebounds. Morgan had 13 points and 10 rebounds over 35 minutes. Green pitched in 13 points and a pair of assists.
“We didn’t forget who we were,” said Summers, who has become a scoring force in March. “We didn’t forget how we play our style of basketball. I just think we had to get together and get closer as a team.
“Things happen throughout the season. Once we got to tournament time, we said we’ll have a fresh start. We refocused and got everybody on the same page.”
Lucious, forced into the starting lineup after a torn Achilles tendon ended Lucas’ season, proved unflappable. Though he made just 2-of-9 shots and committed five turnovers, he persevered. Though he missed what could have been a damning free throw with 28 seconds left, he managed eight points, four assists and never seemed to lose confidence as the captain on the court.
“They were out there pressuring me a lot,” said Lucious, who was constantly harassed by Melvin Goins. “They wore me down. Thank God for Raymar, Durrell and Draymond to come get the ball and take some of that pressure off me. It’s helping me.”
So did Izzo’s coaching. All along, he shouted, stomped and cajoled, pushing all the right buttons.
“Tom Izzo is as accomplished and outstanding of a coach as there is in this profession,” Tennessee’s Bruce Pearl said.
In the aftermath, as one MSU player after the next scaled a ladder to snip down sections of the net, Derrick Nix and Garrick Sherman summoned the ailing Lucas. They lifted him on their shoulders, letting him cut his piece of string.
Teamwork on display at its finest.
“All my clichés all year, you be a better teammate, that’s what it’s all about,’ Izzo said. “When you get that, that’s special.”
So is Izzo, as one fan in the stands opined in a handmade sign.
“Izzo is the Shizzo,” it read.
Indeed he is.
A second national championship would only further that notion.
The Spartans, under Tom Izzo, have been to the Final Four six times in 12 years. Izzo began coaching Michigan State in 1995.