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.

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