Indianapolis – Several hours before the game, MSU head coach Tom Izzo addressed hundreds of fans at the Westin Indianapolis, stirring school spirit and rallying the troops for battle before the Sweet 16 matchup with Duke.
As fans hung on every word of the longtime basketball coach, Izzo wrapped up his remarks by noting he goes to bed each night with the goal to put his program where the Blue Devils are among the elite of college basketball.
Yet as the Spartans clawed and battled to the finish with one of college basketball’s most storied programs, it would seem Izzo’s dreams are on hold – at least for now.
This is how it ends.
The No. 2-seeded Blue Devils (30-5) did what the program has done so many times before, stifling the No. 3 seed Spartans (27-9) with hard-nosed, grind-it-out basketball and soared to a 71-61 victory in the Midwest Region of the NCAA Tournament. For the 13th time under head coach Mike Krzyzewski, the Blue Devils will advance to the Elite Eight and are set to meet No. 1 seed Louisville on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
“Well, we beat an outstanding team today,” Krzyzewski told the media during his postgame press conference. “We just – we made some tough plays, and that gave us a little bit of a – that little bit to win the ballgame.”
Meanwhile, the loss ends the season for the Spartans, thus closing the book on the career of senior center Derrick Nix. Nix wrapped up his MSU career with nine points and nine rebounds on 3-of-10 shooting for the evening.
Standing at his locker in a saddened state of disbelief — both of his season and career ending simultaneously, Nix said the Spartans gave all they had against an outstanding Duke team.
“All these guys care about me from (junior guard) Keith (Appling) to (freshman forward) Trevor (Bohnhoff) – he’s a walk-on,” Nix said. “They’re caught up in to their emotions too and they cared just as much as I did. We’re all in a stale moment right now because we knew we could beat Duke, but we didn’t get it done.
Duke guard Seth Curry led the way with a game-high 29 points, which included a dynamic stroke from beyond the arc, finishing with a 6-for-9 mark from behind the 3-point line.
“Curry hurt us, no question about it, and that’s why he’s a great player,” Izzo said. “But we didn’t quit. We hung in there. I thought we played poorly for us but I’m sure Duke had a lot to do with that. And as I said, the better team won.”
The two college basketball titans traded shots from the opening tip, which allowed for eight lead changes and four ties in the half.
Freshman guard Denzel Valentine led a short MSU surge with back-to-back buckets in to put the Spartans ahead, 14-10, which was the largest MSU lead at any point of the game.
However, it was MSU’s last lead of the half as Curry drained a 3-pointer to put the Blue Devils up 20-18. The shot started a 10-4 Duke run over the next several minutes, which allowed the Blue Devils to head into halftime ahead 32-31.
The Spartans grabbed a brief lead to open the second half on a stealthy turnaround layup by Nix.
But as MSU continued to fight for the lead, it was Curry who felt the hot hand, continuing his reign of terror on MSU’s defense from beyond the arc. MSU’s first three offensive makes of the second half each were answered by Curry 3-pointers to give Duke a 41-38 advantage.
The third of Curry’s 3-pointers was the start of a 7-0 Duke run highlighted by a pair of layups by 6-foot-1o forward Mason Plumlee. Close to a minute later, the Blue Devils extended the lead to 10 points on a fastbreak transition layup by guard Rasheed Sulaimon.
“He made great shots and he had good looks at the basket,” junior center Adreian Payne said. “So when somebody making shots like that, and we had the momentum, it is deflating.”
As much as the Spartans battled at the free throw line, Duke strangled them with efficient offense, turning the ball over just twice in the second half and forcing MSU to do work at the free throw line.
The Spartans managed to shoot 75 percent from the charity stripe in the game but couldn’t convert a basket for more than nine minutes, heavily contributing to lack of momentum in the latter part of the second half.
“A lot of guys didn’t make shots,” sophomore guard/forward Branden Dawson said. “We were kind of rushing it. Every time they scored, we tried to come back and do something one-on-one and try to score on the other guy. I say we just didn’t shoot the ball well.”
Down the stretch, MSU was forced to foul and the Blue Devils converted on all eight free throw attempts in the final two minutes to walk away with the game and play on in the NCAA Tournament.
As the curtain has closed on his first season, freshman guard Gary Harris could describe his feelings in a single word when talking to members of the media after the game.
“The bottom line is that they had more points than us,” Harris said. “It’s just disappointing to see the season end right now.”