All those 11 losses that Tom Izzo and Michigan State took against Mike Krzyzewski will not be mentioned anymore.
The Michigan State head coach does not have to answer his 11 losses to Coach K anymore. Neither do the players who had to carry the sins of the program’s past.
Michigan State exorcised those losses by earning a 68-67 victory over Duke in the NCAA East Region final at Capital One Arena on Sunday. In a game that was billed as a heavyweight matchup, the Spartans earned a Final Four appearance in Minneapolis on Saturday night when they play the Texas Tech Raiders at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Nothing came easy for Michigan State. Duke kept shooting 3s and making defensive plays to take leads and stay close. But to the Spartans’ credit, they never flinched as they made 3s of their own and forced Duke into turning the ball down the stretch. It was only fitting it had to come the hard way for them to finally exorcise their demons.
The Spartans knew this was their best chance to beat Duke. They peaked at the right time. The components were there to beat them by their size, shooting, bench and guard play. If not now, when? A sense of urgency helped them achieve their goal since opportunities don’t come often, and they played like it by pressing Duke into 17 turnovers and being in a position to get as many loose balls as they can to prevent Duke from having another possession of the offense.
Anything short of a victory would have been a massive disappointment for Michigan State. It would have been the most disappointing loss in Izzo’s career considering this was his chance to beat Duke, but to get another national championship.
Everyone on Michigan State contributed. A team-like win indeed. It’s what it took to beat the Duke Blue Devils.
Cassius Winston outplayed Tre Jones in a battle-of-point guard matchup. He scored 20 points and dished out 10 assists. He shot from outside, and he drove the lane to score. He distributed the ball to everyone while Jones trusted R.J. Barrett to make plays down the stretch than Zion Williamson for some inexplicable reason. He forced Duke to turn the ball over four times.
In a game of this magnitude, experience trumps talent. The Michigan State senior guard applied his experience of playing the position well while the Duke point guard played like the moment was too big for him.
There’s something to be said about upperclassmen knowing the ropes of what it takes to win in March than the one-and-dones participating in it.
The Spartans’ big men did their thing in the paint. They scored consistently in the paint, but most importantly, they grabbed 20 defensive out of 31 rebounds. They wore Barrett down the stretch, and Williamson had to earn his points against big men. They put on a yeoman work, which was needed for Michigan State to beat Duke.
Xavier Tillman was Michigan State’s 2nd best player of the game by scoring 19 points, and he kept the Spartans afloat when Duke was scoring and taking the lead by giving the Spartans much-needed buckets. In crunch time, he had all the answers along with Winston.
Michigan State finally could exhale when Kenny Goins hit the 3-pointer to give them a 68-66 lead and when Barrett missed one of his two free throws.
Goins’ shot and Winston forcing a turnover and running out the clock became the image of Michigan State winning this game and stood up to this bully in Duke. It’s a memory these players, Izzo and Michigan State fans will remember forever. Sports create these visual images that we can never forget, and that’s the beauty of following sports. Everyone will remember this 10, 20, 30 years from now. It never gets old.
Izzo did not hide the fact he wanted to win this game. He knows this is his best chance to win his second championship. He has the team to get it done. This loss to Duke would have been the most disappointing of all the loss to Duke if it happened. The players would have thought about what could have been all summer.
To win another championship, the Spartans had to beat Duke.
It sure felt like they won the national championship Sunday evening in Washington D.C by beating a team that everyone pegged them to win the national championship.
It had to be hard for Michigan State to exorcise its demons. The team wouldn’t haven’t it any other way.
It makes this win so much worth it.