The Michigan State Spartans are headed back to the Final Four. The Spartans struggled through the first half but ran a defensive clinic in the second half to propel Michigan State to a 76-70 overtime win over the Louisville Cardinals.
Michigan State, headed to its first Final Four since 2010, put Louisville away when Branden Dawson put back a Bryn Forbes missed three with about 30 seconds to play.
As regulation neared its end, Louisville gained a 64-63 lead with 1:13 on a pair of Wayne Blackshear free throws, but Marvin Clark Jr. responded with a hook shot shoved in to retain the lead.
Louisville had a final look at the basket, inbounding the ball with 12 seconds to go. Shots on the basket didn't fall, but Mangok Mathiang was fouled on a putback attempt with 4.9 seconds to play. The first shot rattled around and in for the 48 percent foul shooter to tie the game at 65, and the second bounced off the back rim and out. Travis Trice's half-court runner as time expired was nowhere near, and regulation ended tied at 65.
Louisville had taken a 40-32 lead into halftime, but the Cardinals' offense -- a constant source of worry for Louisville fans all season long -- went completely cold in the second half. Louisville missed 17 of its first 20 attempts from the field in the second half, a span stretching over 13 minutes into the second. And the only three makes were on Terry Rozier steals and layups in transition.
In other words, Louisville's half-court offense didn't provide a make from the field in the second half until Wayne Blackshear's and-one layup with 3:38 to play.
It took the Spartans a while to heat up, but once they did at about the 10-minute mark, a 10-0 run over a three-minute span gave Michigan State a 57-51 lead that felt much larger than six points because of the Cardinals' inability to produce offense. Still, Louisville woke up just in time.
3 things we learned
1. Coaching is king in college basketball. Great players can't survive in the NCAA Tournament without quality coaching -- how many pros did Rick Barnes coach at Texas to a total of one Final Four in 17 years? -- but the best coaches can make deep tournament runs with subprime rosters. That's not to say this year's Spartans, bound for their first Final Four since 2010, are a bunch of floundering nobodies, because they're very capable players. But the Spartans' current four-game win streak ties their best streak of the season. Michigan State looked tough in the Big Ten championship game against Wisconsin but still fell short in overtime, and that's what the Spartans' NCAA Tournament run seemed destined to be: a tough team, but not one that could survive long enough to make a deep run. We're all wrong again at the hands of Tom Izzo.
2. Travis Trice won the guard battle. Louisville's only shot to win was if Terry Rozier could make it happen on his own accord. That's how Louisville, an offensively challenged team, improbably made it this far in the tournament. And Rozier was key in keeping Louisville in the game with his four steals and easy transition baskets, but the Cardinals completely stalled out in the half-court. Rozier couldn't get anything going, either for himself or his teammates (he was 6 of 22 for the game). Montrezl Harrell's touches plummeted in the second half, and all that happened while Michigan State jolted steadily ahead, guided by Trice. Trice finished with a team-high 17 points.
3. Wayne Blackshear's long, weird career at Louisville is over. Blackshear didn't go out quietly, scoring 26 points on 4-of-5 shooting from behind the arc. Throughout his career at Louisville, Rick Pitino constantly challenged Blackshear to step up and be the player he always thought he could be. Work ethic seemed to be a problem, and Pitino publicly called Blackshear to the mat for failing to improve much upon arriving at Louisville as a McDonald's All-American (the only player on Louisville's current roster to have won such honors as a prep player). On a far-from-perfect team, Pitino needed his senior to step up if Louisville wanted to make another run at the Final Four. That's exactly what Blackshear did. He finished with 28 points in his final game for the Cards.