Final Four: Spartans out to avenge 35-point loss to Tar Heels
By Nancy Armour
DETROIT ó Michigan State has been itching for this do-over since December.
Not only is the NCAA title at stake when the Spartans play North Carolina on Monday night, Michigan State will try to avenge that 35-point beatdown the Tar Heels laid on them four months ago. It was the most lopsided loss for Michigan State since 1996, Tom Izzo’s first year as coach.
“We got embarrassed,” Kalin Lucas said after the 98-63 loss in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, also played at Ford Field.
Oh, how things have changed.
The Spartans (31-6) are an inspired bunch these days, playing for their third national title and the pride of their downtrodden state.
“The whole country is going through an extremely difficult time period right now. … Perhaps it’s even a little more difficult for those people here. I appreciate that and understand what they’re grabbing onto,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “I’m happy for them. I will not be as happy for them (tonight.)”
Few places have been hit harder by the economic crisis than Michigan, Detroit in particular, and folks are desperate for something to rally around, even if only for a few hours. The Spartans have been happy to oblige, knocking off not one, but two No. 1 seeds to get to the NCAA title game.
Now comes another in North Carolina (33-4). It will be the fifth meeting between the Tar Heels and Spartans in the NCAA tournament, and North Carolina has won the first four. The Tar Heels are an early 7-point favorite.
“I hope we were a ray of sunshine, a distraction for them, a diversion, anything else we can be,” Izzo said after the Spartans ran over Hasheem Thabeet and Connecticut in an 82-73 upset Saturday night. “We’re not done yet.”
The mighty Big East, however, is.
The best conference in the country got seven teams in the tournament, and two made it all the way to the Final Four. But both went down Saturday night and, really, it wasn’t even close for Connecticut or Villanova. After banging and brawling their way through the Big East season, both teams were outmuscled all night.
The Spartans were a weakened bunch when they played the Tar Heels back in December. Center Goran Suton was out with a knee injury, and Michigan State was playing its fourth game in a week. They managed to stay with Carolina early but had fallen behind by 14 at the half and were thoroughly outmatched in the second half.
But Suton is back ó way back. He led the rough-and-tumble Big Ten in rebounding, and was picked as the most outstanding player of the Midwest Regional after averaging a double-double in the first four games. He only had seven boards and four points Saturday, but he played a big part in smothering Thabeet, who wasn’t much of a factor despite his 17 points and six rebounds.
Raymar Morgan shook off his late-season slump with a spectacular game, finishing with 18 points, nine rebounds and five steals against the Huskies. Lucas, the Big Ten player of the year, had 21 points.
Then there’s the crowd factor. With their Breslin Center home court just 90 miles away, Michigan State is playing the closest to home of any Final Four team since Kansas won the 1998 title in Kansas City, and Detroit is awash in green and white. A Final Four-record crowd of 72,456 turned out Saturday night, and about two-thirds of the fans were there for the Spartans.
How’s this for some karma? Magic Johnson, Spartan-in-chief since leading Michigan State to its first title in 1979, will present the game ball before today’s title game along with Larry Bird.
“We definitely know they’ve gotten better,” Deon Thompson said. “They didn’t have Suton last time, and he’s a big-time player. I really think it’s a different team from when we played them back here.”
North Carolina, however, is just as daunting.
With Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington back from last year’s Final Four team, the Tar Heels were the unanimous preseason No. 1 and a fifth national championship seemed a given. But they looked vulnerable after losing to Florida State in the ACC tournament, especially with Ty Lawson missing that game and two others with a bum big toe.
So much for that.
They’ve won every tournament game by 12 points or more. They took a lead three minutes into the game Saturday night and never trailed again. They had four players in double figures, led by Lawson’s 22 points and eight assists. Ellington chipped in with another 20, and Hansbrough had a double-double with 18 points and 11 boards.
They limited the Wildcats to 33 percent shooting, including just 5-of-37 from 3-point range.
“We are a confident team, but we will not be overconfident Monday night. That’s just not going to happen,” Williams said.
“I’ve coached in games before where we beat a team easily or got killed and turned around and beat them the second time. … My team knows that they’ll have the battle of the state of Michigan.”