Spartan Final Four hopes crushed with 60-54 loss to UConn


NEW YORK — It’s been said over and over again – this MSU team has never been to a Final Four.

It was 40 minutes away from one on Sunday in “the city that never sleeps,” but the Spartans said goodnight to their season as they fell 60-54 at the hands of No. 7 seed Connecticut.

It’s been the theme of the year, but Adreian Payne, Keith Appling and Dan Chapman are the first senior class never to reach a Final Four under head coach Tom Izzo.

Although Izzo said the streak “doesn’t mean anything” to him, a quiet Appling said it was tough to see it come to an end.

“The Final Four, that meant a lot to me and my teammates,” Appling said, his face in his hands. “For us to come up short and have an opportunity to come so close, it just hurts so bad.”

In the end, it was the Spartans — seeded fourth but seen as one of the remaining national title favorites — who robbed themselves of a trip to Arlington, Texas for the Final Four. MSU tallied 16 turnovers, but the way that number soared happened in a fluky way.

Appling let a ball slip through his hands and go out of bounds on a routine inbounds play. Some passes were to the cameramen out of bounds. A few times, MSU just fell asleep and lazily gave the ball away.

“Those turnovers definitely cost us,” sophomore guard Gary Harris said.

Other than Harris, who led the Spartans with 22 points, the offense couldn’t get anything going. In the first 30 minutes of the game, only three Spartans scored from the field. Payne and junior forward Branden Dawson were locked down in the post, evidenced by MSU’s six points in the paint.

The clog inside caused the Spartans to fire off 29 3-pointers, but the 11 that fell through weren’t enough to earn them the trip to Texas.

“They definitely tried to force me out and to take jump shots,” Payne said. “They did a great job in the post of sending backside help. So it was kind of hard to get the ball down low.”

For UConn, it was guard Shabazz Napier who sparked the Huskies’ offense with 25 points to help them cut down the nets.

“(Napier) wasn’t going to let his team lose,” Harris said. “He was the one making the big plays for them at the end of the stretch, and that’s why he’s such a great player ... because you could just see by playing against him, he’s a winner and he willed his team to victory.”

MSU started the game by watching the Huskies take an early 12-2 lead, but the Spartans clawed their way back into it. Hot shooting from Payne closed the gap, but it was Harris’ 3-pointer that gave MSU its first lead of the game, 22-21.

The Spartans silenced the UConn-heavy crowd early on in the second half by taking a 32-23 lead. From the look of it, it appeared to be all MSU for the rest of the game.

Until UConn rallied behind the crowd to go on a 12-0 run to take a 35-32 lead with 10:23 left on the clock.

It didn’t end there, as three minutes later, sophomore guard Denzel Valentine was easily pick-pocketed by Uconn’s Niels Giffey for a fast break dunk to take a seven-point lead.

It was all but settled from there.

MSU got close, bringing the game to within two points after Payne hit two free throws with a minute to go.

However, Appling fouled Napier on an attempted 3-pointer with 31 seconds left. Napier hit all three shots, icing the game from the foul line.

Appling ended his career fouling out with two points, four turnovers and the foul that allowed UConn to seal the game.

Payne finished his career with 13 points on 4-of-14 shooting and nine rebounds.

Chapman scored the final points of the season on a banked 3-pointer as time expired and the Husky celebration was underway.

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