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Late run by MSU basketball delivers knockout punch to Davidson

March 19, 2022
<p>Sophomore guard A.J. Hoggard (11) prepares to shoot the ball during Michigan State&#x27;s win over the Davidson Wildcats on March 18, 2022.</p>

Sophomore guard A.J. Hoggard (11) prepares to shoot the ball during Michigan State's win over the Davidson Wildcats on March 18, 2022.

Photo by Rahmya Trewern | The State News

Davidson Head Coach Bob McKillop had only one way to describe Friday night's battle between Michigan State and Davidson: a heavyweight fight between two brawlers who were not afraid to stand in the middle of the ring and take a punch.

“We got into the center of the ring and we fought,” McKillop said while leaning as close as he could to the microphone. “We got knocked down a few times. We stayed in the center ring and we kept fighting. We just ran out of time.”

In a game that featured eight lead changes and 11 ties, it felt as though whoever threw the last punch would be the one left standing and advancing into the Round of 32 where the juggernaut of Duke awaited with open arms.

And tonight, the Spartans were the ones that dealt the final blow in the waning moments of the hotly contested first-round matchup after looking dead on their feet just moments before. 

Following a five-minute scoring drought from MSU that allowed Davidson to go on a 7-0 run to take a three-point lead, Michigan State took control in the final seven minutes and never lost control again on their way to the 74-73 victory in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

It started with a drive by sophomore point guard A.J. Hoggard into the teeth of the Wildcat defense. Hoggard rose into the chest of standout senior center Luka Brajkovic and hung in the air until the shot couldn’t be challenged and flipped the ball off the glass and in to cut the lead to one.

Davidson answered the layup with two gimmes of its own to go up 56-51 with 6:51 left, its largest lead of the game. The pro-Wildcat crowd reached a fevered pitch as the Spartans grasped for the ropes, but Michigan State did not fall.

After the second layup, Hoggard took the inbounds pass coast-to-coast in seven seconds and finished another contested layup to make it a one-possession game. MSU got the ball back quickly after a stop and Hoggard immediately took the ball into the paint again, this time kicking it to senior forward Gabe Brown, who swung it to the top of the key to the hero of the night, senior forward Joey Hauser, who splashed home one of his four threes to knot the score at 56 with 6:04 remaining.

“I just wanted to get downhill,” Hoggard said with a smile. “I didn't want to settle for a jump shot.”

MSU finally started to look like the aggressor after struggling to maintain footing for most of the second half in the bout with Davidson and it all started with the probing drives by Hoggard. The next time down the court, it was Hoggard again making the play against a backpedaling Wildcat defense. This time, Hoggard came to a jump stop underneath the basket with Brajkovic looming over him and swung the ball under the Austrian’s arm to Brown in the corner, who drilled the three to give MSU the lead. 

The change in intensity from MSU started with Hoggard’s change in mindset down the stretch. As the season was slipping through the Spartans’ fingertips, Hoggard took it upon himself to be the aggressor.

“I was just trying to be aggressive and help towards our run,” Hoggard said. “I was trying to do everything in my power to get us going and get us back on track. It kind of got a little hectic in there with their fans, kind of had a home game for them. I was just trying to give them my best, be aggressive, and things worked out.”

Davidson was left staggered and MSU pounced to deliver the sealing blow. MSU scored eight of the next 11 points to transform the three-point lead into an eight-point lead with 59 seconds remaining, a deficit too much to overcome even for Davidson, who ranked seventh in the country in three-point field goal percentage.

"I wouldn't say they played harder than we did the last seven minutes, both teams really gave it their all," Brajkovic said. "I just think overall it was just their day and that's why we lost."

It did turn out to be the Spartans' evening in The Well and it happened because of the resilience and fight Izzo has been begging to see from his team throughout the second half of the season.

And when it mattered most, the heart of MSU and its stars could not be questioned.

“I'm proud of these guys,” Izzo said. “There was a stretch, and A.J. included, Gabe included, where we weren't playing as good, and they bounced back and made some big time plays down the stretch.”

It certainly wasn’t the prettiest win possible for MSU, but all they could ask for was to be standing after the duel and not picking themselves up off the canvas to make sense of a completed season. The Spartans live on and have another game on the schedule, the only thing that truly matters in March.

Now awaits Duke and their Head Coach Mike Krzyzewski in his 42nd and final season at the helm. The Blue Devils are the two seed of the West region and Coach K is Izzo’s professional boogeyman, defeating MSU time and time again over the last 27 years. The Spartans will have their hands full once again but after almost being eliminated, another sleepless night of work for the Spartans is cherished, no matter the opponent. 

“There is nothing, nothing, that I enjoy more than trying not to sleep after a big game and go home and work all night,” Izzo said. “That's my team prayer: Give me the strength to work another night.”

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