Spartans' defense shines in slugfest

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NEW YORK -- Tom Izzo has spent most of this season feeling more like Job than a basketball coach. The much-documented, medical-ward Spartans have tried him like no team he has had before.

There were times, he admitted, when he wondered how his team would get through it, times he wondered why in the world this was all happening to him and his team.

He may have received his answer with 91 seconds left in a tightly wound, expertly played  Sweet 16 game against Virginia.

The Cavaliers, a team that came to New York with doubters and left with converts, had just tied the score at 51 when Justin Anderson hit his only bucket of the game, a 3-pointer from the corner.

Izzo called timeout.

Except his team did the talking.

"We were just telling him to relax,'' Denzel Valentine said. "We said, 'We got this.' We had been in this position before. We weren't rattled.''

This was a game that frayed the nerves, a heavyweight bout where every possession felt like a game-winner, every miss a disaster.

Yet there were the Spartans, cool as cucumbers. They have been through hell this season, their season all but hijacked by broken bones and pulled muscles. Michigan State has played 37 games this season. For 31 of them, the Spartans were still trying to figure out who they were.

And so when all of that waiting collided with all of that tension, they shrugged.

"We knew it was winning time,'' Adreian Payne said. "And that's what you heard in the huddle.''

And that's exactly what happened. Payne popped off a screen, rose up and drained a 3-pointer.

The game wasn't entirely over, but for all intents and purposes, it was with that shot. Michigan State would go on to beat the Cavaliers at their own game, 61-59, to move on to the Elite Eight. And now the Spartans have a chance to keep alive a streak that speaks volumes about their coach's credibility.

In Izzo's 19 years at Michigan State, every senior class has played in at least one Final Four. The Class of 2014 gets its shot against UConn on Sunday.

"Working the second weekend of the tournament, there's nothing like it,'' Izzo said.

This one, though, was just that.

Work.

But of the most beautiful kind.

Usually when a score pops up with a 60-point high-water mark, you can almost hear the groans screaming off the box score. No one wants to see a no-hitter in basketball.

This game was the exception. It was a defensive masterpiece on both sides, played so tightly it would have been  easier to thread a tiny needle with a redwood than score a bucket in this game.

"This was one of the toughest games I've ever been involved in,'' Izzo said. "It was a fistfight. Every possession mattered. Every part of this game mattered.''

Most everyone expected that going in. Virginia's terrific defense and more deliberate offense has combined to bring teams down to a 55.5 points-per-game average.

What no one accounted for, though, was the Spartans' ability to keep up on the defensive end. It's funny, really, the perception that was in play here.

Once, not too long ago in a land not so far, far away from this one, Michigan State was the rough and tough behemoths of the Big Ten. The Spartans were muscle and brawn, blue collar and nasty.

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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