CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Late in the game, Carlton Valentine, father of junior guard Denzel Valentine and graduate coach Drew Valentine, stood up from his seat next to the media row, looked at senior forward Branden Dawson and screamed, “It’s winning time!”
Dawson looked up, soaked in his words and nodded in agreement. In fact, the entire team heeded his message.
The Spartans did everything necessary to seal their seventh Sweet Sixteen berth in eight seasons, defeating No. 2 seed Virginia, 60-54 , in front of a pro-Cavalier crowd.
For once it seemed like the Spartans remained in control for 40 minutes, unlike the game against Wisconsin a week ago, when MSU lost an 11 point lead with eight minutes to play before falling in overtime in the Big Ten Tournament championship game, 80-69.
It wasn’t like the game against Georgia in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday, when a 13-point MSU lead dwindled to three with less than a minute left.
Virginia, one of the best defensive teams in the country, trailed the Spartans from the 18:19 mark of the first half until the final buzzer.
Head coach Tom Izzo said the Spartans lost more games than they should have this season as a result of missed free throws and — in his words — “dumb coaching.” He said it’s MSU’s best team win of the season.
“I think they felt comfortable in a game because that’s the way not their whole tournament has gone or the Big Ten Tournament, their whole season has gone that way,” Izzo said. “I’m just, I’m really proud of this team. I don’t use that word lightly when I speak and I am.”
A complete win
The win started with senior guard Travis Trice, who went on a personal 13-0 run at the beginning of the first half to jump start the Spartans offensively.
The senior guard was electric during the run, converting transition layups and contesting 3-pointers with ease.
“I just wanted to be aggressive,” Trice said. “My teammates did a good job at finding me though. I know Denzel (Valentine) hit me for two passes, and (Branden Dawson) hit me for one. I just wanted to keep playing. I didn’t want this to be my last win.”
Trice got some motivation before the game from a Spartan legend. Current Golden State Warrior Draymond Green sent him a text with a simple message: “Don’t let this be your last game.”
“I texted him back and said ‘I won’t,’” Trice said. “But that was our mindset coming in. We knew they were a great team. We had to jump out on them early.”
MSU’s offense slowed down when junior guard Denzel Valentine and freshman guard Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn took seats on the bench with two fouls. With one primary ball-handler on the court, Virginia was able to make life difficult for Trice.
Virginia cut MSU’s lead to two, 24-22, early in the second half when junior guard Justin Anderson got to the rim for a layup.
But a 3-pointer from Valentine and 7-0 run by Dawson expanded MSU’s lead to nine with 16:09 on the clock.
Izzo, who wasn’t pleased with some of Dawson’s plays in the first half, praised his second-half recovery.
“Branden has got some special skills that he doesn’t even know he has sometimes,” Izzo said. “But he is getting better and we shouldn’t punish him because it’s taken a little longer. Like Trav, I think he would have been a different player if he didn’t miss two summers.”
Virginia made another run toward the end of the game, cutting the lead to 5 points with 3:23 left in the game. But Trice waved off an incoming screen from junior guard Matt Costello and nailed a deep 3-pointer with a defender on him to extend the lead to eight with less than three minutes left to seal the win.
MSU made 12 of their last 15 free throws, a complete turnaround from their performance at the line prior to that stretch.
“The biggest change is we were able to finish the game,” freshman forward Marvin Clark said. “Being able to knock down free throws late in the game, playing together as a team defensively, everybody’s helping each other, nobody is relaxing ... it’s starting to show that our camaraderie is translating onto the court.”
Restarting the streak
For last year’s MSU team, Virginia was a Sweet Sixteen roadblock before the Spartans fell in the Elite Eight round to Connecticut.
Adreian Payne and Keith Appling became the first four-year MSU seniors to not make a Final Four, and Izzo said for Dawson and Trice, witnessing the end of that record is motivation for the current tournament run.
“I think people asked me yesterday about the chip on your shoulder because we beat them last year, but these guys lost about as much as you could lose last year if you have 16 years or 18 years straight of a senior class going to a Final Four,” Izzo said. “And I know that record was meant to be broken, nobody’s done that throughout their career, so it wasn’t ... I mean, it wasn’t the record that was earth shattering to me but it was to them that they were part of the group that didn’t, so I think these guys had a lot more to play for than people give them credit.”
Trice and Dawson led MSU to a win Sunday, and senior forward Matt Costello said the senior pair is motivated by wanting to restart the Final Four streak.
“Everybody wants to go to the Final Four and this program is known for Final Fours,” Costello said. “They came here to go to a Final Four, so that’s what they’re trying to do.”
Many considered Virginia to be the most challenging opponent in MSU’s region, and with No. 1 Villanova out of the tournament, the road to a Final Four has become easier.
Yet, the Spartans have a weekend in Syracuse, New York in front of them before the big dance. Trice said it’s too early to dwell on MSU’s current run. There’s basketball to be played.
“It’s something we’ll look back on when the year is over, but we won’t dwell on that. We want to keep it rolling,” Trice said.