Short-handed Spartans make unlikely return to Final Four
The Spartans know they wouldn't be here without Kalin Lucas
After the Maryland game, MSU began to believe it could get to Indy
Tom Izzo's masterful substitutions made a difference late in the game
ST. LOUIS -- One Spartan was figuratively playing for his best friend. The other was literally. The combination was just enough to get their injured teammate to another Final Four.
Durrell Summers' game-high 21 points and fill-in point guard Korie Lucious' gutsy 35-minute effort positioned Michigan State to take advantage of a Raymar Morgan free throw with 1.8 seconds left. That shot provided the winning margin in the Spartans' hard-fought, tense 70-69 win that sends the banged-up squad, improbably, on to Indianapolis.
The Spartans and their coach know they wouldn't be in this position if not for leading scorer and assist man Kalin Lucas, now on crutches and confined to cheerleader mode after injuring his Achilles in the second-round game against Maryland last weekend.
"I reminded our guys that you're not playing for Kalin, really," Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said. "You're still playing partly because of Kalin and what he did for us then put us in a position to keep playing."
The truth is the Spartans may have been bounced in the first round without Lucas' career-high 25 points against New Mexico State. Then, before his injury against the Terrapins, his four points and six assists helped stake the Spartans to a double-digit lead that was just large enough to absorb Maryland's second-half surge and provide the stage for Lucious' buzzer-beating three that sent the Spartans here.
Chris Allen, himself battling a lingering foot ailment, said that after that Maryland game was when he and the Spartans believed they could actually get to Indy. Winning despite the loss of Lucas forced Lucious, and others, to fill the void.
"When Kalin got hurt, it was just ... the locker room, everyone had tears in their eyes. It was like someone had died in there," Allen said. "I couldn't play. Delvon barely could play, but he came up big. Ever since then, every game someone's been stepping up and helping us win, and that's what a championship team [is about]."
Tennessee showed equal championship mettle today. Using the same withering ball pressure led by point guard combo Bobby Maze and Melvin Goins, this had the same feeling as Friday night, when the Vols reeled in and finally subdued Ohio State. After absorbing a 14-1 second-half run that gave Michigan Sate a 59-51 lead with 11:42 left, the Vols clamped down on an exhausted Lucious and the Spartans and ripped off an 11-2 run of their own. Tennessee took two separate one-point leads late and had a third chance to do so, but Scotty Hopson missed the second of two free throws with 11.2 seconds left, leading to the final possession where Morgan was fouled.
Part of what kept Michigan State afloat during the game's final stages was Izzo's masterful situational substitutions, using timeouts and free throw situations to work seldom-used junior Mike Kebler -- a former walk-on who received a scholarship this year -- into the game. The defensive specialist bought Lucious precious seconds of rest while helping cause one of the game's crucial possession changes, forcing Maze to lose control of a shot on the way up and send it over the backboard with 1:09 left.
"It's always great when you have a guy like Kebler come in," Allen said. "We're playing against Tennessee, no offense, when they see a white guy come in, they're like 'He's a walk-on, he don't play.' Automatically, whoever he's guarding, they'll probably go to him. What they don't know is Kebler is one of the better defenders on our team."
One of the other guys who's suddenly turned into a good defender, and is a main reason why the Spartans will be playing Butler on Saturday in their sixth Final Four appearance in 12 seasons, is Summers.
After having butted heads with Izzo on more than one occasion this season, he was benched in the second half of the Spartans' Big Ten tournament loss to Minnesota. After that, the player that Izzo on Saturday called one of the most talented he has coached called a players-only meeting, and has emerged from a subsequent chat with his coach as a refocused, both-ends-of-the-floor force. His tidy 8-for-10 shooting and tie-breaking 3 with 2:47 left were almost overshadowed by his strides on the other end of the floor.
"[Izzo told me to] be more aggressive and it starts on the defensive end," Summers said. "I think throughout the whole tournament my defense has been on a different level than it was in the beginning of the year, and that's just been able to translate to my offense."
He and the rest of the Spartans discovered just enough offense to subdue the Vols and book a second straight trip to the Final Four. With Lucas yelling encouragement and providing the overt leadership that the Spartans have been searching for most of the year, they persevered -- through close games and through injuries that many thought would derail them. It all made their head coach extremely proud.
"We lost our focus today at times, and I think it was mostly because of fatigue," Izzo said. "We were tired. All in all, it's a hell of an accomplishment for some guys that are just sucking it up."
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