Spartans' defense shines in slugfest

Somehow in the last week, once Michigan State was matched up with Virginia in the Sweet 16, it became Loyola Marymount circa 1987, UNLV of the early 1990s.

Izzo said all the attention paid to Virginia's defense didn't bother him. He just sort of innocently wondered why everyone was saying that, especially since his team had held opponents to below 45 percent shooting from the field for six games running.

Maybe it didn't bother him, but the wily coach knows how to find a motivational tool when he needs one.

"Coach was kind of mad that we didn't get any talk about our defense,'' Valentine said. "We match up with them statistically, but everyone talked about their defense. What about our defense? We wanted to prove that we were pretty good, too.''

Of course, the Spartans didn't need to change any opinions here. Two weeks ago in Indianapolis, they gained steam like a boulder rolling downhill at the Big Ten tournament, fans piling on with every win. Michigan State went from the injury-plagued question mark to the hot pick in everyone's bracket.

Not so with Virginia. Despite an ACC regular-season title and an ACC tournament crown, the Cavaliers still packed plenty of doubters with them to New York (along with, apparently their entire fan base. The Wahoos dominated the Garden crowd in the nightcap). There shouldn't be many left now. Virginia matched Michigan State body blow for body blow, giving as many as they took.

"I always tell them, 'a desire accomplished is sweet to the soul,' and they left a legacy they won't forget,'' coach Tony Bennett said.

Certainly Michigan State will never forget the Cavs. Challenged for the entire regular season thanks to their taped wrists, feet and hands, the Spartans have all but breezed through the postseason.

Virginia offered a literal wall of resistance. Every time Payne touched the ball in the low post, he was double teamed. Every time Dawson got it, Akil Mitchell was right in front of him.

Still Payne scored 16, Dawson 24, nearly all of the Spartans' offense coming from the guys who faced the most attention.

But maybe that's what this has been about. Maybe all of this misery and ice and rehab had a purpose.

It was meant to prepare the Spartans for one timeout, one huddle and one moment.

One shining, bruising moment if you will.

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