By Norm Wood, firstname.lastname@example.org | 757-247-4642
12:38 AM EDT, March 29, 2014
NEW YORK – Nobody pointed fingers, nobody blamed officials and nobody cried injustice.
As far as no-calls by officials go, the one top seed Virginia fell victim to Friday night in the closing minute of its 61-59 loss to Michigan State in an NCAA tournament East Region semifinal was painful, but it wasn’t the only culprit for the Cavaliers’ demise in Madison Square Garden.
U.Va. (30-7) had enough attitude and muscle to hang with No. 4 seed Michigan State, but the Cavaliers didn’t get the critical stop or two – or the call from an official – it needed down the stretch.
The combination of issues in the closing stages brought about the end of a memorable season for U.Va., which tied a team record for wins, won an outright Atlantic Coast Conference regular season title for the first time since 1981 and took the conference tournament championship for the first time since ’76.
“When you’re in a game like this, with this much at stake at this level, plays have to be made,” U.Va. coach Tony Bennett said. “Whether it’s big shots hit or just a big block or something. They did that. We had a little trouble down the stretch doing that. A couple times, we broke down and they made us pay, but they’re used to winning.”
With the win, Michigan State (29-8) moves on to play Sunday at 2:20 p.m. in the regional final against No. 7 seed Connecticut, which defeated No. 3 seed Iowa State in a regional semifinal, but the Spartans needed some help to get there.
With U.Va. trailing 56-54, and 38 seconds left, Michigan State’s Keith Appling pushed off on Teven Jones to make room to grab an in-bounds pass near U.Va.’s basket, but officials didn’t call a foul. U.Va. coach Tony Bennett and an arena dominated by U.Va. fans erupted after the no-call.
“I’m just surprised they didn’t call it, but…they’re not going to call that,” said Jones, who added Appling stuck his elbow in Jones’ throat. “You can’t blame it on the refs. They don’t want the game to be in their hands. They want to let us decide it, so it was the right call.”
Michigan State, which shot 44.7 percent from the floor for the game, made 5 of 7 free throw attempts in the final 33 seconds to put the game away. Branden Dawson led Michigan State with 24 points and 10 rebounds, while Joe Harris and Malcolm Brogdon each had 17 points to pace U.Va.
Brogdon made a 3-pointer with two seconds left to cut Michigan State’s lead to 60-59. Michigan State’s Gary Harris made a free throw with 1.2 seconds left, and intentionally missed the second, setting up an 80-foot 3-point attempt at the buzzer by U.Va.’s Justin Anderson. His final shot fell well short of the rim.
U.Va., which made 35.1 percent of its field goal attempts for the game (including 33 percent – 6 of 18 – on 3-point attempts), refused to go away in the closing minutes. Looking up at a 51-44 deficit with less than 4 1/2 minutes left, U.Va. chipped away until it got a 3-pointer from Anderson with 1:49 remaining to tie the game 51-51.
“At that point in time, you can’t really celebrate those type of plays,” said Anderson, whose 3-pointer was his only basket of the game. “I mean, it was a good pass by Joe (to find Anderson in the corner). I made a good shot, I guess.”
Michigan State went back up 56-51 via a 3-pointer by Adreian Payne with 1:29 left, and a dunk by Dawson with 50 seconds left. It was the only successful 3-pointer of the second half for Payne, who finished with 16 points.
Harris nailed a 3-pointer that rolled around the basket before falling in with 39.5 seconds left to cut Michigan State’s lead to 56-54 and set up the frenetic final moments.
“We knew you were going to have to work, outlast them,” said Bennett, whose team hadn’t shot as poorly as it did Friday since making 32.8 percent of its field goal attempts Jan. 4 in a 62-50 win at Florida State. “It was a classic game (against Michigan State) – what I thought it would be. We left a few out there we probably should have got, but I told the guys not to hang their head, because it was hard-fought and it was enjoyable, I know, for me.”
U.Va. trailed 31-27 at the half, but it clamped down on Michigan State to start the second half, keeping the Spartans from connecting on a field goal for the first 6 minutes and 37 seconds.
“We were chasing them around those screens, and we picked the defensive way we wanted to cover them,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “For the most part, I think it was pretty good. The turnovers led to some things and we didn’t play good, and (U.Va.) did play good. I thought that the difference in the game was we survived that stretch and bounced back and actually played pretty well after that.”
While U.Va. cranked its defensive efforts up a notch, it also got some offense early in the half behind Brogdon, who had five points in the first five minutes and 31 seconds to put the Cavaliers up 36-32.
“I think we got them to turn the ball over and we were translating those turnovers into transition points,” Brogdon said. “That was really the key for us. Although I think we broke down a little bit later in the second half, I think in the beginning we were doing a phenomenal job.”
Michigan State committed four of its 10 turnovers for the game in the first seven minutes of the second half. It also missed its first seven shots from the floor in the half.
“That’s what we do best is force our tempo,” U.Va.’s Akil Mitchell said. “That’s why we’ve been so successful all year, because we impose our will. We play our type of game. Michigan State is successful in that style of game, too. They’re very well-coached, obviously – a couple missed calls, a couple lay-ups and shots around the rim and stuff like that and a couple defensive breakdowns and the game goes the other way.”
Michigan State didn’t stay dormant on the offensive end.
Trailing 40-36 with 11:43 remaining, Michigan State rallied with a 13-2 run to go up 49-42. U.Va. went nearly six minutes without a field goal, missing six consecutive shot attempts before a Harris layup with 5:49 left cut Michigan State’s advantage to 49-44.
“They are a great team, and defensively, I think they are the best defensive team we’ve played all year, but I think we did a great job of answering the bell because we did a good job checking them, too,” Michigan State’s Travis Trice said. “Coming in, we felt like we were one of the best defensive teams in the country, too.”
Through the first 20 minutes, Michigan State appeared to have found the answers to threaten Virginia’s NCAA tournament run, but U.Va. came storming back. Just as U.Va. did on the rare occasions it got in serious trouble this season, the Cavaliers calmly clawed their way back after falling behind early.
Michigan State took advantage of U.Va.’s determination to limit opportunities in the paint by knocking down 3-pointers early in the game. Michigan State hit a trio of 3-pointers in the first five minutes and four seconds, helping the Spartans race out to a 17-9 lead with 12:29 remaining in the first half.
Michigan State’s lead grew to 23-13 with 9:01 left in the half after a pair of Dawson free throws, but U.Va. came back.
U.Va.’s largest deficit it overcame to get a win this season was 11 points Feb. 18 at Virginia Tech. The Cavaliers trailed the Hokies 40-29 with 14:19 left before bouncing back to win 57-53.
Like Tech’s late lead in Blacksburg, Michigan State’s comfortable early cushion didn’t stand up.
“Virginia is a very, very, very tough team,” Dawson said. “Those guys just never gave up. Coming into this game, coach – he told us that we better be ready for a dogfight. That’s what it was.”
U.Va. recovered with a 12-0 run, highlighted by an Evan Nolte follow of a London Perrantes missed jumper to tie the game 23-23 with 3:54 remaining. Anthony Gill drove for a layup attempt that was converted via a goaltending call against Michigan State, giving U.Va. its first lead 25-23 with 3:30 left in the half.
Gill, who entered the game having scored in double figures off the bench in each of U.Va.’s last six games, was limited to just six minutes of playing time in the second half after rolling his ankle. He scored three points.
In a game of runs, it seemed only fitting for Michigan State to finish the first half with an 8-2 run of its own to claim its 31-27 edge. Michigan State scored 14 of its 30 points in the paint – an uncharacteristically high number of points in the lane against U.Va. – in the first half.
Despite its valiant effort to bounce back in the second half and advance to a regional final for the first time since 1995, U.Va. fell short on the scoreboard for just the second time in its last 20 games. Nothing could immediately soothe the sting of coming so close.
“It was a pretty sad scene coming in (to the locker room),” said Harris, who shot 6 of 14 from the floor, including 2 of 7 from 3-point range. “I think it just kind of hit a lot of guys all at once that this is the last time that Akil and (Thomas Rogers) and I are going to be playing with Virginia and being a part of this program and a part of this team. That’s tough, because we really haven’t thought about that at all. It’s more than just basketball stuff…We’re a very close-knit team.”
Wood can be reached at 757-247-4642
Copyright © 2015, Newport News, Va., Daily Press