Saturday, May 21, 2022

'It slipped away:' Michigan State was on the cusp of history, but falls short in loss to Duke

March 21, 2022
<p>Trevor Keels (1) is defended by Gabe Brown (44) during Duke&#x27;s victory over Michigan State on March 20, 2022.</p>

Trevor Keels (1) is defended by Gabe Brown (44) during Duke's victory over Michigan State on March 20, 2022.

Photo by Rahmya Trewern | The State News

It wasn’t much of a plan. In a sport and season defined by chaos, the roadmap to a historic upset wouldn’t be a neat step-by-step guide. There were open ends, some gray areas and a decent chance Michigan State would never be in a position to execute. 

But there was a plan. A simple one. The way Michigan State Men's Basketball Head Coach Tom Izzo tells it: cut it to two with around ten minutes left and put the pressure squarely on Duke. See how they’d respond in gut-checking time. See if they could dig down and give something deeper when things got uncomfortable. 

The pressure in question? It came from the man sitting on the Blue Devil’s bench that walked, talked and coached like he had 1,199 career wins, 5 national championships and 12 Final Fours to his name. It’s been championship or bust in Durham, North Carolina since Duke Men's Basketball Head Coach Mike Krzyzewski announced that he was calling it quits at the conclusion of the 2021-22 season and no player was looking to let him down, especially against Michigan State. 

But up 70-65 with 5:10 to go, the Spartans were in position. Duke put up a three-plus minute scoring drought and the shots Michigan State needed to stay in the game had finally put them ahead. The plan, gray areas aside, was playing out well into the final minutes and the Spartans had more than a puncher’s chance to steal a win that’d immortalize them forever.

But like that, the switch was flipped. Freshman guard Trevor Keels hit a game-tying three with 3:24 left. Freshman forward Paolo Banchero drove to the rack for the 75-74 lead. Sophomore guard Jeremy Roach fired off another three with 1:16 left and when it was all said and done, Duke stood tall to close the game on a 13-2 run. 

And like that, it’s curtains for Michigan State with a season-ending 85-76 loss. Krzyzewski returns to the Sweet Sixteen for the 26th time and his farewell tour beats on. His players will get another chance to perform, if not thrive, under that magnificent pressure. 

As for Izzo? He won’t start his offseason stewing over singular mistakes so much as what they missed out on. 

“(I’ll) probably be beating myself up for a week because not many times do you get an opportunity to be right there in the threshold of something special,” he said with a hint of sorrow. “And it slipped away.”

That was Michigan State basketball this season-as Izzo would say sometimes, an eyelash away from being great, really great. Clean up a couple things here and a couple things there. Get a little more out of one guy. Don’t give the ball away as much. Try to come out with energy, try to finish with a little more. They came an eyelash short once again.

But for a night, they were back on the cusp of greatness. The final 59 seconds of Duke and Michigan State’s last clash at the hands of Krzyzewski and Izzo was essentially rendered futile by a pair of free throws from junior forward Wendell Moore Jr. but when the perspective shifted, Izzo wore his heart on his sleeve. 

“An average team without a lot of heart might've just drifted into the sunset,” Izzo said. "Last year, I was mad at my team at the end. This year, I was proud of my team at the end.” 

About last year. Michigan State’s rocky 2020-21 campaign came to an end with a woeful 86-80 loss to UCLA in the First Four that saw the Spartans blow a 12-point lead and eventually roll over in overtime. Izzo condemned the team’s defensive lapses in the game and the frustration from it clearly lingered in players' and coaches’ psyches throughout the season. 

Asked about the locker room after falling to Duke, the scene in Mackey Arena after UCLA popped back into Izzo’s head. He said it was different from the one filled with tears, instead of disappointment, on Sunday night. 

“That doesn't mean anything bad,” he said. “It’s just this year, we did everything we could do.” 

So the emotion in question added a depth that wasn’t indicated in the final score, one that was instead shown by the work done by two of Michigan State’s seniors to help ensure that they’d have a shot at another game and another night. 

Senior center Marcus Bingham Jr. turned in an inspired performance against Duke with 16 points, 10 rebounds and the type of defense that kept Banchero away from the rim on some crucial possessions all while battling sophomore center Mark Williams in the paint. His voice was quiet but didn't waver when talking about his “mixed emotions,” including the pride after the fall. 

“We kept huddling up, trying to talk to each other, telling each other to keep going, just keep playing, keep playing hard,” he said. “I'm proud of the guys. We all played hard tonight.”

Junior guard Tyson Walker’s voice did. The gleam in his eye that had come with the big crowds, private planes and game-winners in his first season with Michigan State shined through a little bit of water. His up-and-down journey brings the pride of staying in it all season, not just against Duke, into perspective. 

“For me, it felt good just to be here,” he said. “I wanted to win. I wanted to make it to next weekend. Like people in my town, I'm the only one to make it this far in the tournament. So it felt good.”

For now, it’s on to next season for the Spartans. The bitter UCLA loss will be duly replaced by the high-flying Duke loss as the go-to sour memory. Players and coaches alike will reference it much the same in their 2022-23 season- i.e. we’re not going home early again. We’re not losing in the second round this year. 

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“We just didn't do the things that we needed to do to win these kinds of games. If we can learn from it, only time will tell,” Izzo said. “I'll find out when we get back and look at the film, just how many things we didn't do, and then we'll try to correct them.” 

An average team with a lot of heart that was on the threshold of something bigger with five minutes to go. Like in the huddles around that time, Izzo said he knew exactly where they were. Another plan awaits. 

“Our program is right where it needs to be,” he said. “Now we've got to take another step.”


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