MINNEAPOLIS (AP) – The buzzer sounded and Tom Izzo walked stoically across the Final Four floor to shake hands with Texas Tech counterpart Chris Beard, complimenting him on his team’s toughness and a fine defensive performance.
It’s a walk Izzo has made a lot over the past two decades.
Frustrated all night by the Red Raiders’ stingy defense, and unable to get guards Cassius Winston and Matt McQuaid into much rhythm, Michigan State fell once again on college basketball’s grandest stage. The Spartans’ 61-51 defeat in the national semifinals Saturday night was their sixth straight trip to the tournament’s final weekend without hoisting a championship trophy.
“Probably in a day I’ll be able to sit back and look at the incredible journey and incredible run,” Izzo said, “but right now it’s just disappointing.”
It’s also disappointing for Izzo’s beloved Big Ten, which hasn’t had a national champion since Mateen Cleaves and the Spartans won the coach his only title in 2000.
“I feel like I’m part of that issue. I’ll put on my big-boy pants and say, ‘Yeah, I’ve been here eight times and won one,'” Izzo said, “but I’ll keep knocking on the door.”
The Spartans had their chances to break it down Saturday night.
They trailed just 23-21 at halftime in the kind of defensive slugfest everyone anticipated, and it was still a nip-and-tuck game early in the second half. And even when the Red Raiders pushed the lead to 48-35 — their biggest of the game — the Spartans never quite seemed out of it.
The Big Ten’s regular-season and tournament champions kept pecking away, including a series of free throws that nipped into Texas Tech’s lead. When Aaron Henry followed two foul shots of his own with a big basket with 2:51 left, the deficit was down to 52-51 and the green-clad fans were stirring.
That was the closest the Spartans got down the stretch.
Jarrett Culver answered with a scooping layup for the Red Raiders, and Winston committed a silly offensive foul at the other end to give the ball back. McQuaid missed a wide open 3-pointer on Michigan State’s next trip down floor, and Culver added a free throw to extend the Red Raiders’ lead.
“They did a good job of rotating. They switch really well. Made it hard to get into the post, things like that,” Winston said. “Their defense is really, really good, and forces you into some tough situations to make plays.”
The Spartans’ last chance to make it close ended when Xavier Tillman was stripped by Texas Tech big man Norense Odiase with 1:19 to go, and the Red Raiders efficiently put the game away.
Izzo shook Beard’s hand as the Red Raiders set their sights on Virginia in the final.
“Coach Izzo is just class,” Beard said. “I mean, it was kind of a surreal moment. He just congratulated us and he mentioned our toughness, and that means a lot in our program.”
The defeats Michigan State has endured in the Final Four over the years have come in all flavors: They’ve fallen as high seeds expected to do great things and low seeds that surpassed expectations, and run into buzz-saws such as Duke and Arizona that were loaded with future NBA prospects and dropped down-to-the-wire nail-biters to the likes of Gordon Hayward and Butler.
On Saturday night, they lost to a team that beat them at their own game.
Izzo prides himself on toughness — in the old days, he’d suit up his guys in shoulder pads and helmets in practice. Yet the Red Raiders beat Michigan State to the punch all night, harassing Sparty on the perimeter and rendering Tillman and fellow forward Kenny Goins ineffective
in the paint.
Michigan State wound up shooting 32 percent from the field, went 7 of 24 from the 3-point arc and desperately could have used Joshua Langford, their forward they lost to a season-ending injury in January.
“We wanted to win. We wanted to win a championship. That was our goal,” said McQuaid, who battled cramps down the stretch. “We just didn’t shoot goo, and you know, Texas Tech played really good.”
Winston, who played all 40 minutes, tried to rescue the Spartans in the second half. The Big Ten player of the year wound up with 16 points but he needed 16 shots to get there.
Nobody else gave him much help, either.
The result was a national championship appearance for Texas Tech in its first trip to the Final Four, and another weekend that ended in disappointment for Izzo and the Spartans.
“Very seldom in my career have we kind of gout out-beat-up, and tonight was one of those nights,” Izzo said. “I guess somewhere there’s a compliment to us that (Beard) kind of beliefs in the same philosophy which I think is true in any sport. We always talk about defense wins championships.”
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