Buzzer-beating victory shows how much Michigan State has grown
Kalin Lucas' Achilles injury proved to have a galvanizing effect
Michigan State makes its ninth Sweet 16 trip in the last 13 years
Spartans coach Tom Izzo cried tears of joy and sorrow afterwards
SPOKANE, Wash. -- Attached to the Michigan State locker room at the Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena is a small room with cement block walls and a black table against the far wall.
At halftime of the Spartans second-round game against Maryland on Sunday, point guard Kalin Lucas sat on that table, his left foot wrapped in ice. He had been told moments earlier that his Achilles tendon was likely torn, and tears rolled down his face.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo would later say that what happened next was one of his "prouder moments" as a coach. One by one, Lucas' teammates lined up to enter that small room. Among them was Korie Lucious, the 5-foot-11, sophomore guard who would become the team's primary ball-handler and director with Lucas out. He hugged Lucas and repeated what many of the Spartans had told the fallen guard: "I got your back. All us here got your back."
A half of basketball later, Lucious was on his back on the court, his teammates and even Sparty, the school's faux-muscled mascot, piled on top of him. Lucious' three-pointer at the buzzer gave the Spartans an 85-83 victory and the school's ninth trip to the Sweet 16 in the last 13 years. But, as Izzo and his players would say later, the team won not because of a single shot, but rather because all the players finally believed what they said to Lucas at halftime.
"It's no secret that if you put us in this situation three weeks ago, we wouldn't have won this game," said forward Draymond Green, whose three-pointer with 20 seconds left was part of a dramatic finish that included four baskets in the final 35 seconds, including two brave drives by Maryland's Greivis Vasquez, all of which could have been game-winners. "It was a matter of us becoming closer as teammates and better teammates to each other. With us doing that you can pull off games like this."
One of the least highlighted, yet most remarkable aspects of the NCAA tournament is its ability to purge the past. A player with a troubled history can rewrite his reputation with one memorable shot. A coach with a spotty record can get his team on a run and, suddenly, he is a genius. The water from the spring in Lourdes doesn't heal as effectively as March glory.
On Sunday, there was little talk of Izzo's frustration with the lack of leadership shown earlier in the season by Michigan State's veterans, including Lucas, whom he kicked out of one practice. No one mentioned the scene on the bench during the Spartans' loss to Minnesota in the Big Ten tournament, when Izzo chastised junior guard Durrell Summers for not playing defense and told junior Chris Allen, who was suspended for that game for an undisclosed rules violation, that he "let two seniors down."
Any discord was buried deep in delirium, and why shouldn't it be?
College basketball remains the realm of the juvenescent, where teambuilding and maturity are not just catchwords. Every team, every kid is a work in progress, even one coached by Izzo, with his long history of driving the Spartans deep into the Dance.
"I don't wan to get too dramatic -- it is the [second round] of the NCAA tournament -- but where this win really ranks high is me having been telling this team a little bit about why you have got to be a better teammate and why you have togetherness," Izzo said.
Summers, the talented but at times undisciplined junior guard, scored 26 points, including 6-of-7 on three-pointers, but his finest moment came when he approached Izzo postgame. "I still got a long ways to go, Coach," he said, and his coach smiled.
"You all know what I did to Durrell [benched him late in a Big Ten tournament game against Minnesota]. I told him in practice yesterday that that the only reason I sat him was so he would have more legs today," Izzo said. "He laughed. I laughed, and he did have some legs today. He did a hell of a job."
After the game, Izzo and Lucas hugged and then Izzo walked to midcourt, where he waited to be interviewed by CBS. He repeatedly wiped his eyes, tears that he would say later "were of joy and sorrow": joy for witnessing, finally, the galvanizing of his team, and sorrow for Lucas, his best player, who will surely miss the Spartans next game against Northern Iowa and any beyond that.
"[Kalin] grew today, too," Izzo said. "A lot of guys that grew, they're all the same size, but their hearts and heads are a lot bigger."
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