Final Four: Michigan State 82, UConn 72
By Nancy Armour
DETROIT ó As his Michigan State teammates hustled downcourt, Kalin Lucas looked around at a stadium ablaze in green and white, turned on his megawatt smile and raised both his arms.
No worries, he seemed to be saying, we’ve got you.
Carrying an entire state knocked down by the economic crisis is a lot to ask of a group of college kids, but the Spartans are proving they’re more than up to the task.
“It means so much, so much,” said Magic Johnson, who sat just a few rows behind the Michigan State bench Saturday night. “It’s been all bad news the last couple of years.”
It’s nothing but good news now. Lucas scored 21 points, Raymar Morgan broke out of his late-season slump with 18 and nine rebounds, and the smaller Spartans ran roughshod over Hasheem Thabeet and Connecticut in an 82-73 upset in the Final Four on Saturday night.
The Spartans (31-6) now will play the winner of Villanova-North Carolina for the NCAA title Monday night, giving the city and state at least two more days to forget all the bad news and revel in their Spartans’ success.
It’s Michigan State’s first appearance in the title game since 2000, when the Spartans won their second title.
“One thing we talked about is bringing hope to the city for a whole weekend,” said Travis Walton, who dished out eight assists. “People forgetting about their problems, forgetting about what they’re going through, just focusing on us and focusing on Michigan State.
“From the moment we were on that court and we won that game, people didn’t think about what they was going through outside of this. They was just happy that we won and they can continue to cheer for us on Monday.”
How’s this for some karma? Johnson, Spartan-in-chief since leading Michigan State to its first title in 1979, will present the game ball before Monday’s title game along with Larry Bird.
“I hope we were a ray of sunshine, a distraction for them, a diversion, anything else we can be,” coach Tom Izzo said. “We’re not done yet, so hopefully we can continue to make them feel a little better and us feel a lot better.”
The loss snapped Calhoun and Connecticut’s perfect run in the Final Four. They’d made it twice before ó 1999 and 2004 ó and went on to win the title each time.
UConn cut an 11-point deficit to 4 in 49 seconds, getting within 3 with a minute to go. But the outcome was never really in doubt. Durrell Summers, a Detroit native who experienced firsthand the hardships his city and state are enduring when both parents were laid off, converted a three-point play to put the game out of reach.
Flashbulbs popped throughout the arena as the final seconds ticked down. After huddling at midcourt, the Spartans walked to the edge of the floor and saluted the Final Four-record crowd of 72,456, about two-thirds of which was pulling for Michigan State.
“It was a memorable game that I won’t forget,” Izzo said. “Except we’ve got another one.”
The UConn players walked slowly off the court, looking shell-shocked that their season had ended. Thabeet left with a towel draped over his face.
“I’ve got a lot of kids in there crying right now,” Calhoun said. “But they had a great season. It hasn’t been that easy to stay focused the past few weeks. But I give (Izzo) a great deal of credit.”
This was supposed to be a battle of big men.
UConn’s Thabeet had been a one-man swat team, averaging a double-double and winning defensive player of the year in the burly Big East for a second straight year. Michigan State’s Goran Suton led the equally gritty Big Ten in rebounding and had averaged a double-double in the NCAA tournament.
But the matchup never developed.
The Spartans are veterans of the down-and-dirty Big Ten, but they can run some, too, and Izzo made no secret of his plan to use their speed to keep Thabeet out of his comfort zone.
Thabeet led the Huskies with 17 points and six rebounds, but it was the quietest 17 points anyone’s ever had. He looked gassed from the opening tipoff, leaning over, tugging on his shorts and gasping for air not even six minutes into the game. Aside from the first few possessions of the second half, he actually looked lost down low.
Or as lost as a 7-foot-3 guy can look.
“This ended up being who made the small plays made the big difference,” Calhoun said.