Friday, April 10, 2020

Great moments in MSU sports history: 2019 Big Ten men's basketball championship game

March 16, 2020
Senior guard Matt McQuaid (20) dribbles the ball against Michigan. The Spartans beat the Wolverines, 65-60, at the United Center on March 17, 2019. Photo by Matt Zubik. Design by Daena Faustino.
Senior guard Matt McQuaid (20) dribbles the ball against Michigan. The Spartans beat the Wolverines, 65-60, at the United Center on March 17, 2019. Photo by Matt Zubik. Design by Daena Faustino. —

Michigan State has canceled all sports activities as our community deals with the COVID-19 crisis. In a time when sports have ceased, The State News is looking back at great moments in Michigan State sports history. Soon, we’ll be back to a world with sports, but for now, the past will have to do.

Today, we’ll be looking at the 2019 Big Ten men’s basketball championship game between Michigan and Michigan State. 

Date: March 17, 2019

Venue: United Center, Chicago, Illinois

Matchup: No. 6 Michigan State (1-seed Big Ten) vs. No. 10 Michigan (3-seed Big Ten)

The background: Michigan and Michigan State came into the 2019 Big Ten men’s basketball championship game in similar places. Both teams had excellent seasons, as MSU was led by Big Ten player of the year junior point guard Cassius Winston and John Beilein’s last Michigan team featured freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis, who was fantastic in three meetings against MSU. 

The two squads first met on Feb. 24 in Ann Arbor, when the No. 10 Spartans turned a halftime deficit into a 77-70 victory. Winston was masterful, scoring 19 of his team-high 27 in the second half to defeat the No. 7 Wolverines in front of a crowd honoring three Final Four teams.

Then on the final day of the regular season, just eight days before the matchup in Chicago, the No. 9 Spartans beat No. 7 Michigan in East Lansing, 75-63, to win a share of the Big Ten regular season championship. The Wolverines led by as many as 12 late in the first half, but the Spartans wouldn't be denied on Senior Night. In the Big Ten tournament, top-seeded MSU cruised past Ohio State and Wisconsin, while third-seeded Michigan blitzed overmatched Iowa and Minnesota teams, winning by an average of 24 points.

The game: I personally will always think about the horrible sound. When there’s only one person making noise in a crowd of 20,000, it’s piercing. When that noise is not a word or a shout, when it’s a sickening cry, it’s heartbreaking.

With 4:34 remaining in the first half, trailing Michigan 21-20, redshirt junior forward Kyle Ahrens went up for a rebound with three other players and landed on his ankle. Senior forward Kenny Goins later said he could hear the pop as they tumbled to the ground. 

The game was stopped for several minutes as Ahrens was taken off on a stretcher. Seated on media row behind the Michigan State bench, I was just spitting distance to the United Center security guard who tried to keep a concerned couple off the floor.

“You can’t be here,” he said to them sternly.

“We’re his parents,” Susan Ahrens said.

Michigan grew its lead after the Ahrens injury, reaching 39-26 with 17:12 left, as a shell-shocked MSU attempted to play on without one of its emotional leaders.

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Then came the legend of Matt McQuaid. The senior guard hit seven threes, all assisted by Winston, as the Spartans went on a 19-7 run to tie the score at 48. During this run, Ahrens reappeared from the tunnel on crutches, sending the MSU crowd into thunderous applause and spurring on his teammates.

When Michigan forward Isaiah Livers hit a three to give the Wolverines a 60-55 lead with 2:29 left, the Spartans responded. McQuaid hit another three, sophomore forward Xavier Tillman scored inside, and Winston scored the game-winning layup with 28 seconds left. The Spartans closed the game on a 10-0 run and won, 65-60.

The emotional Spartans cut down the nets afterwards, with McQuaid stepping up the ladder and cutting down two pieces. The first, for himself.

“Arnie, this is for you,” he said, cutting down a second piece for his injured best friend and roommate.

MSU coach Tom Izzo later called it his “proudest moment” in 25 years of coaching.

The aftermath: We’ll see more from this 2019 run later in this countdown, but the Spartans weren’t done. They received a 2-seed in the East regional of the NCAA tournament and tore through the region. First came a nip-and-tuck battle with 15-seeded Bradley, a game most famous for the verbal altercation between Izzo and freshman forward Aaron Henry during a second-half timeout. MSU then battered conference foe Minnesota as well as third-seeded LSU in the Sweet Sixteen, setting the stage for a matchup that will live forever.

The Spartans defeated top-seeded Duke, a team led by future NBA lottery picks Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish, 68-67, on Kenny Goins’ three-pointer with 34 seconds remaining. MSU fell in the Final Four in Minneapolis to West regional champion Texas Tech, 61-51, who finished as the national runner-up to South regional champion Virginia.

Michigan got the 2-seed in the West regional and fell to Texas Tech, the 3-seed, in the Sweet Sixteen.

McQuaid plays for the Fraport Skyliners of the German Bundesliga. 

“I just wanted to leave it all out on the court,” McQuaid said that day in Chicago.

Mission accomplished.

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