DETROIT – A virtual home crowd. National championship expectations. Two future NBA lottery picks.
All of this was not enough for Michigan State men’s basketball. The Spartans’ national championship or bust season will end as one of Tom Izzo’s biggest disappointments.
The No. 3 seed Spartans lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament Sunday, as Syracuse swallowed up the Spartans with a zone defense for the ages. The No. 11 seed Orange took a lead late in the second half and didn’t relinquish it, emerging victorious, 55-53, at Detroit’s Little Caesars Arena in front of a green and white crowd.
“Jim Boeheim and his team deserves all the credit in the world,” MSU coach Tom Izzo said in his emotional postgame press conference. “They did their job. They did it in a hostile environment. They played very solid. They played their style. They did not change.”
The first half was not pretty by any stretch of the imagination. Michigan State jumped out to a 7-2 lead before the offense went into park, along with Syracuse’s.
The Spartans shot under 29 percent for the half, making 5 of its 19 shots from beyond the arc. Syracuse, meanwhile, wasn’t much better. The Orange shot 40 percent for the half and only made one three.
“I think we got some great looks, some shots that we usually knock down,” MSU guard Cassius Winston said. “And the ball definitely wasn’t falling tonight.”
The score was 22-22 when Tom Izzo called a timeout with 19 seconds remaining in the first half. A planned play didn’t go as expected, and Matt McQuaid was stuck with the ball in the left side corner.
What happened next brought the Spartan-heavy crowd to its feet. McQuaid threw up a shot that was blocked by Matthew Moyer. He corralled the rebound and in mid-air threw up a prayer as the buzzer sounded. The shot banked off the high glass and in for a tiebreaking three, as the Spartans carried a 25-22 lead into the break.
“I’ve never won a game when a team… banked two threes against us,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said, referring to McQuaid’s and another three banked in by Bridges in the second half. “It would have been bad sitting up here if we lost by one and say we lost because we were unlucky. [McQuaid’s shot] was the hardest and luckiest bank I’ve ever seen in my life.”
The teams started out hot—relatively—in the second half before again struggling to produce points. Neither team gained a lead larger than six.
One of the Spartans’ biggest momentum sparks came when Miles Bridges threw down a thunderous one-handed dunk to push the lead to five with 7:21 remaining. It was also the first transition bucket of the game for the Spartans.
Syracuse regained the lead with 4:22 remaining on two Dolezaj free throws, making it 49-48 Orange.
Tyus Battle pushed the Orange lead to three with 47 seconds left. After jump balls back and forth and missed threes from Bridges, the Spartans had another chance with 9 seconds remaining. But Syracuse smartly fouled, forcing the Spartans to shoot free throws as opposed to allowing a tying three. Cassius Winston missed a halfcourt heave as the buzzer sounded, ending the Spartans’ season.
“I thought the saddest locker room I was ever in was Denzel’s,” Izzo said, referring to the 2016 Middle Tennessee State loss in the first round. “Today topped that.”
Michigan State missed 14 straight shots to end the game and only made 3 of its 18 from beyond the arc in the second half. The season-high 29 offensive rebounds weren’t enough either, as the Spartans ended the season with a colossal disappointment in their home state.
Izzo and the team, although dejected after the upset loss and abrupt ending to a historic season, were quick to look upon the season as one full of successful memories.
“I’ve had a couple disappointments with some pretty good teams. And that’s the way basketball goes,” Izzo said. “I think [Tum Tum Nairn] said it best to our team: Hold your head up high; don’t let one game — we’re 30-5 — define who we are. Let the times when we went through some tough times define who we are, the way we stuck together and hung together and battled together.”