Michigan State Falls Short In Bid For Third National Title

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Michigan State Falls Short In Bid For Third National Title
(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

It was supposed to have a fairytale ending.

All of the elements were in place. An underdog Michigan State team was playing in more than just a basketball game.

They were playing to erase the struggles of an injury-plagued season.

They were playing to provide relief to a state ravaged by the highest unemployment rate in the country.

They were playing to prove that Big Ten defense had a place among the high-powered offenses of the Big East and the ACC.

Ultimately, the Spartans fell short in their bid to provide some drama at the end of the 2008-2009 college basketball season.

I'll recap the game in a moment, but first, I feel the Spartans' season deserves a spotlight of its own.

In a year where Purdue was picked as the preseason conference champion, Michigan State ran away with the Big Ten by a full four games.

In a year where pundits everywhere were touting the superiority of the Big East, Michigan State took down two of the Big East's best en route to the final game of the season.

In a year that saw streaks come to an end, such as Kentucky's consecutive NCAA tournament appearance streak, Tom Izzo continued his streak of taking every player who has stayed for four years to a Final Four.

In a year where the Spartans struggled early on, getting blown out by Maryland and North Carolina, Michigan State strung together a winning streak when it mattered most and was one of the final two teams standing.

These Spartans have a lot to be proud of after the season they put together.

They got to raise banners, they got to play in the Final Four in front of hometown fans, they got to enjoy marquee wins on the national stage, and they got to remind the whole nation that yes, they are an elite program.

In fact, if MSU destroys every tape of both games against North Carolina this season, it could easily pass for a near-perfect season.

The 35-point loss suffered at the hands of the Tar Heels on December 3 is old news, but the 17-point loss to the same opponents will be fresh in the minds of the Green and White.

The fans are left wondering what happened. How could a team with so much momentum come up so short when it mattered most?

First, credit must go to North Carolina.

The Tar Heels seemingly couldn't miss a shot. Time after time, they rose to take a difficult shot, from distance or with a hand in their face, and every time the shots seemed to fall.

At one point early on in the game, I turned to those gathered in my apartment and asked: "Are they ever going to miss? We can't win if they shoot 100 percent."

Contested layups, deep three-pointers, tough fade-aways, it didn't matter. If a Tar Heel took the shot, it was going in.

At the root of this was the near-flawless execution of the North Carolina squad.

They consistently found shooters in favorable positions. They made great moves to put the Michigan State defense off-balance.

And most importantly, they took advantage of the Michigan State mistakes. And boy, were there ever mistakes.

This was not the same Michigan State team that had taken down Louisville and UConn in the previous two rounds.

That team had won by taking care of the basketball, suffocating on defense, and being efficient on the offensive end of the floor.

The team that showed up against North Carolina was a team similar to the one that occasionally appeared earlier in the season.

This team would be plagued by poor shot selection and foolish turnovers. Goran Suton managed a double-double, but his team played so poorly that it was tough to notice.

Unfortunately, there isn't an easy explanation for the poor play.

North Carolina didn't employ defensive pressure any more intense than UConn or Louisville.

Michigan State just seemed to forget how to take care of the ball. They seemed to be so excited about playing for a title in front of the home fans that they grew impatient and attempted to rush things on the offensive end.

Against North Carolina, that's a huge mistake.

The Tar Heels are so well-coached and were so hungry, that they immediately pounced on the nervous energy of the Spartans and put the game out of reach.

In the end, the team that enjoyed better execution was the team that took the title home. The team filled with youth was left to wait until next year for another shot.

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