NEW YORK -Keith Appling sat silently by his locker inside Madison Square Garden, his hands clasped over his eyes. He could have been praying, crying or hiding. He had reason to do all three.
“I just feel like I let everybody down,” he whispered. “We let everybody down.” Minutes earlier, he still had been a college basketball player, bent at the knee, ready to defend, hoping his team could overcome the monster of its mistakes and still, somehow, reach the Final Four.
For all its stumbling, Michigan State was down only two with less than a minute to go. Shabazz Napier, Connecticut’s steely senior guard, was dribbling down the shot clock, waiting, waiting, 20 seconds, 18 seconds, 14 seconds, 10 seconds. And Appling, having the most out-of-sync game of his life, waited in front of him, heart beating, hoping for redemption, a goalie waiting for the last shooter to commit.
Finally, Napier pulled up – “I knew he was gonna take the shot,” Appling said, “I watched enough film” – and launched a prayer of a three-pointer. It never reached the basket. For an instant, MSU players, fans and coaches still had the dream-
A whistle! Foul on Appling. Three free throws.
“I honestly didn’t think they would make a call like that that late in the game,” Appling mumbled by his locker. But they did. It was Appling’s fifth. His game was over. His college career was over. He ran the length of the court with his hands pressed on his head, as if to keep his soul from flying out.
Too late. His team was finished. Napier sank all three free throws, the partisan UConn crowd went crazy, and Appling pulled a towel over his head. The worst thing in the worst game at the worst time.
When you just can’t score …
Thus ends a remarkable season and, with Michigan’s loss to Kentucky, the brief shining fantasy of an All-Michigan championship game. How can we sum up MSU’s 60-54 collapse to UConn in Sunday afternoon’s Elite Eight? How about this: Michigan State won the opening tap – and everything after that went downhill.
The Spartans missed seven of their first eight shots. They had four turnovers before they had two baskets. They fell behind by 10, clawed back to a halftime lead, then went nearly 7 minutes without a basket in the second half, while managing, throughout the game, to tick off every kind of turnover. Traveling? Check. Palming? Check. Bad pass? Bad tip? Off the leg? Off the hand? Step out of bounds? Check, check, check.
UConn had a suffocating defense, no doubt, it kept MSU from getting into any rhythm, clogged the middle like hair in a drain, locked out Adreian Payne and forced him into jump shots, and rendered Branden Dawson nearly invisible. Dawson scored 50 points in the previous two games.
He scored five Sunday.
Still, for all the Huskies did, including getting to the foul line and making 21 of 22, there was a reason Tom Izzo kept looking at the box score after the game and shaking his head.
“We had 16 of the most out-of-body turnovers known to mankind,” he said. “I mean, you’re just not going to win games like that.”
No Final Fours for these seniors
At his locker, Appling barely moved. As photographers snapped his broken heart pose, he shook off questions about the good of his career, the positives weighed against the negatives.
“It just hurts so bad…. It’s hard to appreciate anything right now,” he said.
A few feet away, Payne also slumped in a chair, surrounded by media. He, too, had played his last game. With 13 points and nine boards, it was a better game than Appling’s (who had two points, four turnovers and five fouls). But the last is the last.
“What’s going to hurt the most when you look back at this one?” someone asked Payne.
“We were so close to making it to a Final Four,” he said, “and we didn’t play Michigan State basketball.”
He’s right. With the loss, Payne, Appling and reserve Dan Chapman become the first seniors to never experience a Final Four in Izzo’s 19-year coaching career. It was a wonderful streak that spoke to consistent excellence and the growth Izzo gets when he molds teams together. Which is why this loss will sting even more in the days to come.
MSU wasn’t lucky to be here. It finally had everyone healthy. It had been jelling with each victory since the end of the regular season, and it matched up well with all the remaining teams. This was a highly regarded squad in preseason that suffered awful injuries but worked its way back to top-favored status.
And then kicked it away. Dropped it. Bad passed it. Saw it slap off hands in crazy turnovers or missed offensive rebounds. It was like that dream where you are naked on stage. MSU arrived at Madison Square Garden, but forgot to bring its game.
“We got what we deserved,” said Izzo, jut-jawed to the end. But he kept squinting at the stat sheet, just as Appling squinted back the tears, as Payne squinted at the questions, and as fans squinted at their TV sets.
Nightmare. I’m not sure what we just saw. But I know it was the end.