Michigan State's victory over Harvard in the NCAA tournament in some ways mirrored the season, perhaps even the career, of arguably the best player on the floor Saturday night.
It looked at first like everything was going great for the Spartans and it was going to be easy.
Then, suddenly, it wasn't.
Harvard came back from 16 points down early in the second half to briefly take the lead at one point, forcing the Spartans to do a collective gut check before they could grind out a 80-73 win. This placed them not only in the Sweet 16 but squarely in the serious national title favorite conversation.
That's sort of how this season, and much of his career, has gone for Michigan State's Branden Dawson. No one was better Saturday night in Spokane, Wash., where Dawson exploded for a career-high 26 points.
He had 20 of them by halftime, already establishing a career high. By then MSU was up 45-33 and seemingly had everything in control. It didn't, but more on that later.
There have been times during Dawson's career when he seemingly had everything under control, and then didn't. One of those times came earlier this year when he smashed his right hand on a table during a film session because coaches and teammates were being critical of him, according to the Detroit Free Press.
The result of Dawson's tantrum was a broken hand that sidelined him for nine games.
During those nine games, however, some wonderful and somewhat unexpected things began to happen.
Players forced to fill the minutes left void by Dawson had to step in and grow up in a hurry. And they did, increasing the team's depth and versatility by the time the stretch run toward the Big Ten Conference tournament and NCAAs began.
Dawson, sitting idle, was forced to reach for a new level of maturity, too, when his famously demanding coach, Tom Izzo, suddenly began quizzing Dawson about the game as if he were part of the coaching staff.
It was something new for Dawson, who admitted to Detroit Free Press reporter Joe Rexrode in the recent article that he and others in his recruiting class had frequently talked of transferring during their freshman year because they just weren't used to Izzo "and how he was just always on edge all the time."
As time passed, Dawson grew to appreciate his coach's edginess and attention to detail—perhaps never more so than during the nine-game stretch when he couldn't play. By the time the Big Ten tournament rolled around, Dawson not only was back on the court with a healed wrist, but also with a more focused, determined attitude.
After being named Most Outstanding Player for the Big Ten tourney following Michigan State's win over rival Michigan in the conference title game, Dawson posted a picture of himself and Izzo online and wrote, according to Rexrode via the Detroit Free Press:
This man has pushed me through so much and not only is he a great coach but he's a Leader, a father Figure, Motivator, Teacher and a Mentor. He believed in me when I didn't even believe in myself. I remember when I was ready to transfer after my freshman year, but he was not going to let that happen. (I'm) thankful to have a great coach like Coach (Izzo).
Izzo no doubt was thankful to have Dawson diving for loose balls, grabbing rebounds, running the floor hard in transition and hitting 11 of his first 14 field-goal attempts against Harvard. In short, Dawson outworked everyone else on the court in the first half.
Izzo said afterward that he wasn't surprised Harvard, coached by former Duke standout player Tommy Amaker, came back in the second half. The Crimson did so in part because Amaker made some defensive adjustments to limit the offensive prowess of Dawson, who was so physical in the first half that he at times appeared to overwhelm his foes through raw strength and power around the basket.
"The key is Tommy Amaker. He is a good friend and I know this guy and give him a lot of credit," Izzo told TNT in a post-game television interview. "I told our guys in the huddle, 'They are not going to quit.' They played so hard and came back. We did some goofy things, but I give Tommy and Harvard a lot of credit."
All of this was true, but Dawson deserves credit, too—for helping the Spartans earn the gritty win against feisty Harvard and for making it possible by never giving up on himself or this season. In addition to his 26 points, he also grabbed a team-high nine rebounds. His last basket of the game came with just under two minutes to play and gave the Spartans a 73-67 lead that finally allowed Izzo to exhale.
Now the Spartans are making their 12th trip to the Sweet 16 under Izzo, who is in his 17th year coaching them. No one will savor the moment more than Dawson.
Joe Menzer writes about college basketball, golf, NASCAR and other sports for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @OneMenz.
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