Friday, May 24, 2024

Walton pushes MSU to Final Four in Detroit

The MSU men’s basketball team defeated No. 1-seed Louisville 64-52 on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium to advance to the Final Four. Senior center Goran Suton, who was named as the Midwest Regional’s Most Outstanding Player, had 19 points and 10 rebounds. Sophomore guards Durrell Summers (12 points) and Kalin Lucas (10) also scored in double-figures for the Spartans, who play Connecticut (31-4) at 6:07 p.m. Saturday at Ford Field in Detroit.

Indianapolis — As the final seconds ticked off the clock, senior guard Travis Walton collapsed into a ball in front of the MSU bench.

As his teammates stormed the court to celebrate MSU’s 64-52 victory over Louisville, Walton just knelt there, head bowed between his legs, heart throbbing, tears jetting from his eyes.

At one point, you wondered if he would ever get up.

For four years, Walton had been yearning for this moment.

It had been his dream since joining the team as an unheralded recruit, his obsession since being named team captain as a sophomore.

When it arrived, he didn’t want to let it go.

“I was thanking God,” said Walton, who finally picked himself off the court to celebrate with his team. “I woke up at 7 a.m. this morning and prayed and prayed and prayed. He delivered.”

No player worked harder or deserved a chance to play in the Final Four more than Walton, who took extraordinary measures to ensure he wouldn’t be a member of the first Tom Izzo-coached class not to play in the big event.

“I had pressure; seniors had pressure,” Walton said, a Final Four cap sitting atop his head. “Our underclassmen had pressure to deliver this last class to a Final Four so coach can go on the road anywhere he goes and say … if you come to Michigan State University, we’re gonna get you into a great academic arena, and the last thing, we’re gonna get you to a Final Four.”

Not only was Walton saddled with the pressure of having to guard the opposition’s best player this season, he also took on the role of de facto assistant coach, and this morning, he led his team in prayer before the game.

“You’re talking about somebody that put his all in for this program,” freshman forward Draymond Green said. “I mean Travis watched eight games of Kansas — eight games, you’re talking about a coach watching eight games. That’s just how much he loves this, how much he wanted it.”

Despite his aching to play in the Final Four, it looked like Walton might never get a chance. After disappointing exits in the tournament each of the last three years, his last crack came Sunday against a Louisville team that looked simply unbeatable.

The Cardinals had won 13 straight games, including a 103-64 drubbing of Arizona earlier this weekend. They had won the Big East regular season championship, the postseason championship and three straight NCAA Tournament games in convincing fashion.

Most experts thought Louisville would win in a breeze, figuring the Spartans would just roll over and die against the Cardinals’ vaunted full-court press.

However, Walton simply wouldn’t allow that to happen.

Once again, he played incredible defense against the opposition’s top weapon, and was a calming influence on a team that was never rattled by Louisville’s aggressive defense.

But just like it has always been, Walton’s main impact came off the court, when he convinced his team it would win when nobody else thought it would.

“We believe in each other,” Walton said. “One thing coach does is stick to his promises. He said, ‘you get me through Friday, I’ll do my best to get you through Sunday.’”

Back in the locker room after the game, Walton was still buzzing with emotion. He has earned the right to celebrate. But you better believe the partying will end in Indianapolis — at least for now.

Walton is not done, and neither is his team. On Saturday, the Spartans take on Connecticut to play in the championship game.

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Once again, MSU will enter the game as the underdog. Once again, Walton won’t care.

And after he’s done talking to them, neither will his teammates.

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