5 Things We Learned from Michigan State's Win over Virginia

Steve SilvermanFeatured ColumnistMarch 29, 2014

5 Things We Learned from Michigan State's Win over Virginia

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    Seth Wenig

    Michigan State continued its late-season resurgence and survived a tough, physical battle to beat Atlantic Coast Conference champion Virginia in the Sweet 16 at Madison Square Garden.

    The Spartans struggled late in the first half and early in the second as Virginia came back from a 10-point deficit to take the lead. However, Michigan State was the better team in the final 10 minutes, and that allowed them to earn a 61-59 victory.

    Michigan State made several mistakes along the way, but the Spartans were at their best when the game was on the line. Tom Izzo has a chance to take his team to the Final Four when it battles Connecticut on Sunday.

Defense Rules the Day

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    Seth Wenig

    It's all about execution with Tom Izzo's Michigan State Spartans, and that begins on the defensive end.

    While the Virginia Cavaliers came into their Sweet 16 meeting with the Spartans as the nation's best defense in terms of points allowed (55.7 points per game), Michigan State was the best defensive team playing in Madison Square Garden in their epic meeting.

    Michigan State contested nearly every pass and dribble throughout the game and made it very difficult for Virginia to get good shots. The Cavs struggled with their shooting and made just 20-of-57 shots from the field. That 35.1 percent shooting is a big reason why the Spartans are playing for a spot in the Final Four and why the top-seeded Cavaliers are going home.

    “It was a fistfight," Izzo told the Detroit Free Press after the game. "Every possession mattered, every part of that game mattered.”


Dawson Is a Leader

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    Seth Wenig

    While the Spartans played tough defense throughout the game, so did the Cavaliers. It was difficult for Michigan State to find open spaces and function offensively.

    Difficult but not impossible. The Spartans showed great resolve, especially in the game's final minutes, to survive the battle. It's fairly clear that the Spartans would have been the team going home if not for the superb, all-around play of Branden Dawson.

    The 6'6" swingman scored a game-high 24 points as he made 9-of-16 shots from the field and 6-of-8 from the free throw line. He also asserted himself on the glass, hauling in a game-high 10 rebounds. 

    Dawson thrived in the physical environment and was the game's best player. 

Payne Hits the Big Shot

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    Seth Wenig

    The Spartans were in a fight for their lives for 40 minutes. It appeared they had seized control late in the second half when they built a 51-44 lead, but the Cavs came charging back and tied the game at 51-51 when Justin Anderson hit a corner jumper with 1:41 left.

    That's when Izzo called a timeout. Adreian Payne had an open look at a three-point shot on the possession prior to Anderson's tying three-pointer, but he passed up the shot. He instead decided to drive into the lane, where he was forced to take a shot from an awkward angle.

    Izzo and Payne's teammates told him to take that three-point shot if it came his way again. He didn't have to wait long. Seconds after play resumed, Keith Appling found a wide-open Payne on the left side of the arc. He launched a three-pointer that gave Michigan State a 54-51 lead. 

    Michigan State had more work to do, but Payne's three-pointer gave the team momentum.


Free-Throw Shooting

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    Young Kwak

    Michigan State has been a good-but-not-great free-throw shooting team this season. They have connected on 70.6 percent of their free throws this season.

    However, it's more about the way a team shoots its free throws down the stretch that matters more than their overall percentage. Michigan State was very solid from the line in the final minutes. Dawson, Payne and Travis Trice each made a pair of free throws in the final 5:25, and that allowed Michigan State to set its defense during Virginia's final push.

    Michigan State made 14-of-18 free throws for the game.

Strategy Session

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    Frank Franklin II

    The Spartans had a four-point lead after Trice made a pair of free throws with nine seconds to play. By making it a two-possession game, it appeared the Spartans had clinched the victory.

    However, Malcolm Brogdon nailed a three-pointer with two seconds left, and the Cavs fouled Gary Harris with 1.4 seconds left on the clock. Virginia had no timeouts remaining.

    Izzo called his team over to the sidelines before Harris went to the line, and he told Harris to miss the second of the two free throws. Izzo knew that Virginia would not have time to do anything but launch a desperation heave, and that would give the Spartans the win.

    However, there was debate on the Spartans' bench about the decision. Making both free throws would assure the Spartans that they could not lose in regulation time.

    Harris followed his coach's plan, and Virginia's final toss at the basket never had a chance.