NEW YORK — It doesn’t get much better than this.
In a game they looked out of at times, the MSU men’s basketball team fought back to squeak out a 61-59 win against top-seeded Virginia.
Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson scored 11 of the team’s last 14 points to seal the deal and give the Spartans elite status.
“I love the Garden,” head coach Tom Izzo said. “The Garden, it hasn’t been as good to us, but the new one has been better. As (Virginia head coach Tony Bennett) said to me, and I agree with him, it’s the way the game should be played. We beat a hell of a team, so I’m just excited about it.”
So much has been made about the Virginia defense ranked No. 1 in the nation, but it was the MSU defense that stepped up in the first ten minutes of the game, holding Virginia to the less than 40 percent shooting.
MSU stretched the lead to as many as ten in the first half led by some strong play early on from Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson.
But the Cavaliers didn’t go away, and stormed on a 10-0 run to tie the game and get the pro-Virginia crowd back into the game.
As good as MSU look in the early stages of the game, they were equally as bad in the second part.
Both Payne and Matt Costello picked up two fouls, and Keith Appling and Gary Harris attempted three shots between them and scored three points.
The Spartans fought back to take a slim halftime lead, but it wouldn’t last long.
No field goals over the first six-and-a-half minutes of the second half coupled with Virginia’s continued momentum looked to doom MSU.
“We just were hungry,” Payne said. “We knew that it was going to be a dogfight, and we knew it was winning time. We just tried to continue to stay together and fight from there.”
But it was Dawson who came to save the day.
He scored the first five points of the half for MSU and singlehandedly kept them in the game.
Then MSU went on a 7-0 with just under ten minutes to go in the game. Payne got things going with a thunderous dunk, Dawson with a layup, and Travis Trice with a three-pointer to give MSU the lead.
That was all part of a 13-2 run for MSU across more than five minutes that included Appling’s first points of the game.
But in true March Madness fashion, Virginia went on another run, this time 7-0 to tie it at 51.
Payne came back and answered with a three of his own, then found Dawson for an ally-oop jam to put MSU up two.
Dawson finished with a game-high 24 points, and Payne added 16 of his own. They were the only two Spartans who scored more than six points.
“Coming into this game, coach (Izzo) told us that we better be ready for a dogfight,” Dawson said. “That’s what it was. When they went on our run, we never lost our poise. We stayed together. We didn’t point any fingers. We just stayed positive.”
MSU will battle No.7 seed Connecticut at 2:20 p.m. Sunday at Madison Square Garden with a trip to Dallas and the Final Four on the line.
“I give our guys a lot of credit,” Izzo said. “We got in some foul trouble with Harris out and that made it worse. But this team i think learned through the adversity of what we dealt with when we had all the guys injured that you just got to keep battling. As my football coach says, you just stay the course, and we kind of stayed the course.”
Click here to view a video of fans at the NCAA Tournament prior to the Virginia game.