The state of Michigan is in the Elite Eight.
Only hours after the Michigan Wolverines sealed their spot in the next round of the 2014 NCAA tournament, the Michigan State Spartans followed suit, with a 61-59 victory over the top-seeded Virginia Cavaliers.
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It's the first time in history that both Michigan schools have made it this far in the Big Dance in the same year, per ESPN Stats & Info:
This is the first time that Michigan and Michigan State both advanced to the Elite 8 in the same year.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 29, 2014
This will be the Spartans' 12th trip to the Elite Eight and eighth under the stewardship of head coach Tom Izzo.
The game was a defensive struggle from the start, with possessions coming at a premium, per Seth Davis of Sports Illustrated:
Every possession at a premium in this Va-Mich St game. What a pleasure.— Seth Davis (@SethDavisHoops) March 29, 2014
The last two minutes were some of the most compelling in the tournament.
Virginia fought back after being down for the previous seven minutes, tying the game at 51 with 1:53 remaining after a three-pointer by guard Justin Anderson.
Just over 20 seconds later, Spartans center Adreian Payne put his team ahead, 54-51, after a three-pointer of his own. The bucket followed what had previously been a poor shot by Payne that resulted in a quick transition for the Cavaliers.
After some talking to from Izzo, the senior knew exactly what to do the second time around, per ESPN's Andy Katz:
At that last timeout, Izzo was talking to Payne about the previous possession. Looks like Payne took the message. Hit a 3.— Andy Katz (@ESPNAndyKatz) March 29, 2014
Michigan State got a defensive stop, and junior Branden Dawson put the Spartans up five points with 53 seconds to play.
A five-point lead might not sound like much, but it may as well have been double digits. It meant Virginia would have to foul and hope that Michigan State would miss its free throws, which wasn't all that bad a bet considering MSU was 164th in the country in free-throw percentage coming into the game.
Senior Joe Harris got Virginia back to within two points, 56-54, with 40 seconds to go, but Payne hit his two free throws to get the lead up to four points.
And that was the story for the rest of the game. The Cavaliers inched their way into the game, only for the Spartans to close the door again at the foul line.
Virginia had a chance to win the game with a last-second heave, but Anderson's attempt was well short of the hoop.
Izzo opted to have sophomore Gary Harris miss the second of two free throws, which set up the potential game-winner. After the win, the head coach admitted that his decision could've gone very wrong, per Kevin Armstrong of the New York Daily News:
Izzo on missing FT intentionally with 1.4 secs left, up 2: "If (UVA shot) had gone in I woulda killed myself. Other than that, I was fine."— Kevin Armstrong (@KevinGArmstrong) March 29, 2014
After the game, Izzo added that while his players' performance left a little to be desired, he was happy with their toughness, per USA Today's Nicole Auerbach:
"That was one of the toughest games I've played in," Izzo said. "Every possession mattered. That is hard to play, mentally, that sharp.
"We didn't look as poised as I would have liked, but when you can go down and then get back up … it shows we've got some character, some heart."
What made MSU's win all the more impressive was that it overcome a largely partisan crowd. A lot of Cavaliers fans made the trip up to Madison Square Garden for the game, and they were only too happy to make their presence felt, per CBSSports.com's Matt Norlander:
The faces/people/scarf game among this Virginia crowd: incredible.— Matt Norlander (@MattNorlander) March 29, 2014
Dawson stepped up large for the Spartans with 24 points, 10 rebounds. As Davis points out, it's hard to believe that this team played for so long without him earlier in the season and managed such a strong record:
Branden Dawson playing like a grown man tonight. How did the Spartans last five weeks without him?— Seth Davis (@SethDavisHoops) March 29, 2014
Payne added 16 points and five rebounds of his own.
Harris and sophomore guard Malcolm Brogdon scored 17 points apiece for Virginia, but it wasn't enough. The Cavaliers couldn't find timely offense when they needed it.
Cavs Journal provides Tony Bennett's thoughts on the game:
Tony Bennett, in the hallway outside #UVa's locker room. "We really believed we could win this ... You just didn’t want it to end."— Cavs Journal (@CavsJournal) March 29, 2014
Michigan State will play No. 7 Connecticut in the Elite Eight. Although the Huskies didn't have a great regular season, they seem to be peaking at the right time, which makes them extremely dangerous. In Shabazz Napier, UConn also has the kind of star who can take the game over.
Should the Spartans put in a similar performance on both ends of the court like on Friday night, though, they shouldn't have any problems reaching the Final Four. There's a reason many pegged this team to win the East Region.