Sloan: After many called for an early exit, victory has never tasted sweeter for MSU

Luke Sloan, Assistant Sports Editor

The day is Saturday, Mar. 9. A battle-tested Michigan State team is fresh off its second victory over the rival Michigan Wolverines, this one coming after another remarkable second-half finish. The team is the regular-season champions of the Big Ten and firmly supplanted as a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament.

The Spartans, according to many, already had their map planned out for the remainder of March. It was seen to be in their best interests to put it in neutral for the upcoming Big Ten tournament, resting instead of making another run.

But after cruising past Ohio State and slowing down the inside play of Wisconsin, the opportunity at another title quickly presented itself. It was a different title, but the same exact team on the opposing bench, the Wolverines.

Fatigue was aplenty amongst the Spartan players, as Cassius Winston continued to struggle with his tendinitis and other veterans such as Goins and McQuaid showed signs of wear after many games of high usage.

Once again the debate began, this time discussing why the Spartans expelled so much energy into making a run in the Windy City. It waged on, but Sunday’s victory proved why Michigan State showed up, and the payoff was truly sweet.

“I’ve never been prouder of a team in my life,” Tom Izzo said. “I’ve had some incredible teams and incredible guys, but what these guys have gone through nobody will ever know, and the way they have handled it and hung in there.”

Another emotional hurdle

After being dealt multiple setbacks throughout the regular season, the Spartans had another thrown at them Sunday at the end of the first half. Kyle Ahrens, a player who’s preserved through a number of challenging injuries in his career, suffered what appeared to be a severe ankle injury while coming down after a rebound.

X-rays would reveal that his left ankle was not fractured, but the severity of the situation caused Tom Izzo and many of his players to become emotional on the bench. In a season of blows, another had popped up.

Everyone knows the stories of Josh Langford and Nick Ward, with devastating injuries derailing their seasons. Ward has made his return in Chicago, but Langford will have to wait until next season to hit the floor. The Spartans lost the three games following the news of Langford’s season-ending injury, and like that instance, their play suffered following Ahrens’ scare.

Michigan State looked disheveled to close out the first half, trailing the streaking Wolverines headed into the break. But like every setback, this team responded in a big way and succeeded, completing a 13-point comeback to beat its rival for a third time.

“Every huddle we said today, we said Ahrens, this one’s for Ahrens,” Winston said. “He gave us his all so we’re going to give him our all, all the way through.”

McQuaid responds

It was a career day for the senior Matt McQuaid, who posted new career highs of 27 points and seven 3-pointers. The veteran leader responded in a big way after the Ahrens injury, and like his teammates, he was visibly emotional after it.

He hit the first shot after the injury delay, a 3-pointer that may go down as one of the biggest shots in his career. He simply couldn’t miss from there, leading his team on offense and rallying them together after the setback.

“We were just firing each other up, just motivating,” McQuaid said. “Coach was motivating, intense. Just trying to keep everybody in tune with what we’re doing, keep us together. We’ve been down against them the past two games at halftime, too, so he was just reminding us of that. They’re a good team, but we had to keep fighting.”

Ahrens would return to the arena on crutches to a large ovation from the near-sellout crowd, another boost to the Spartans, but today’s hero was the one the Spartans call “Quaido.” His standout performance may go down as his top moment in green and white.

What comes next

As players and coaches hoisted the trophy and cut down the nets amongst the confetti, word quickly spread around the floor that the Spartans were set to matchup with Bradley as the No. 2 seed in the East Region.

This sparked conversation again. Was it worth it to win? They didn’t jump up to a No. 1 seed? They actually found themselves not even as the top 2-seed in the field, facing a challenge with the mighty Duke Blue Devils in their region.

But following a third victory over the Wolverines, another strong response following an emotional setback and another trophy for the case, this weekend’s result wasn’t just sweet, but another remarkable feat during a season that could poised for greatness.