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 is the latest blow for UConn, the best team in the country until Jerome Dyson went down with a knee injury in mid-February. The Huskies (31-5) have been dealing with distractions since last May, when coach Jim Calhoun was diagnosed with his third bout with cancer, and are now facing questions about alleged recruiting violations.
The loss snapped Calhoun and Connecticut’s perfect run in the Final Four. They’d made it twice before—1999 and 2004—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.
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.
“This ended up being who made the small plays made the big difference,” Calhoun said.
The most aggressive Thabeet got was at the end of the first half, getting in Marquise Gray’s face after Jeff Adrien and Walton got tangled up under Connecticut’s basket. There was some pushing and shoving, prompting Calhoun to come all the way from the other end of the floor to calm his players. But the dust-up fizzled quickly, and no technicals were even called.
Suton, who had the main job of corralling Thabeet, didn’t score his first field goal until early in the second half and finished with four points and seven boards.
Stanley Robinson and A.J. Price had 15 each for Connecticut, and Robinson added 13 rebounds.
“We couldn’t get back and they’re a good team in transition,” Robinson said. “I just give them all the credit. They’re a tough team.”
Morgan was Michigan State’s best player early on, but he’s struggled to find his groove since missing three games in February with walking pneumonia. He had just seven points in Michigan State’s last three games—that’s combined—and was 0-for-2 in the big win over Louisville in the Midwest Regional final. Granted, he’s playing with a broken nose and a plastic mask, but Izzo has been all over him to be more aggressive.
“We needed someone to step up, and he stepped up in a huge way,” Izzo said. “Not only rebounding the ball, not only defending, not only being physical down there, but the way he scored and what he did.”
Morgan scored 11 in the first half, including a couple of big buckets when UConn was threatening to take off. Little Korie Lucious, the back-up point guard who’s never met a shot he didn’t like, was a key contributor early on, too, scoring nine points in a 1 1/2 -minute span at the end of the first half.
It was Morgan again in the second half, stripping Craig Austrie to start an 8-2 run that caught UConn flat-footed, all but ended the game and threatened to bring down the roof at Ford Field.
Morgan stripped Austrie and dished to Draymond Green, who lumbered down the floor for an easy layup. Austrie missed a shot at the other end. Lucas— generously listed at 6-feet—grabbed the rebound and sprinted upcourt, splitting two Connecticut defenders with a shake-and-shimmy that gave him a wide-open layup. Wide open because those two defenders didn’t have any help. Thabeet didn’t even bother to run up the court to play defense, gasping for air with his hands on his hips.
After another Huskies miss, Morgan grabbed the rebound and fired it to Allen, who scored on a finger roll to give Michigan State a 53-49 lead.
The ball had barely dropped through the net when Calhoun barked for a timeout, and the Michigan State fans erupted. If Calhoun hoped the break would re-energize his team, he was wrong.
Green made a jumper, Durrell Summers a 3 and Green converted a pair of free throws. After Price missed a jumper, Green made his own from the top of the key to give Michigan State a 72-54 lead with 7:52 to play. He and Lucas slapped hands as the crowd roared.
“We love y’all!” Lucas yelled to the crowd during a postgame interview. “We love Detroit!”
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