The beautiful run turned to a stumble, and like an oncoming hurricane, North Carolina caught the Spartans, blew through them, and left them flattened, so fast, so devastating, you almost expected to see ambulances at halftime.
Heeled. This was not how Tom Izzo’s guys wanted the nation to see them. Not with Kalin Lucas losing the ball, not with Goran Suton shooting at air, not with passes popping out of their hands, or over their heads. Not watching bug-eyed, mouths open, as North Carolina hit three-pointers, lay-ups, putbacks and dunks, setting a record for points in the first half. It was such a wipeout, fans glanced at the scoreboard only to see if the Spartans had closed the gap to under 20 points.
Much of the time, the answer was no.
Heeled. Here’s how dominant Carolina was in winning this NCAA championship. Ten minutes in, Michigan State had eight turnovers, seven fouls, no steals and a 21-point deficit. Early on, it wasn’t even Ty Lawson and Tyler Hansbrough doing the big damage. It was a junior forward named Deon Thompson, playing like a giant, and the two guard, Wayne Ellington, hitting nearly everything he threw up, and a long freshman sub named Ed Davis, who in eight first-half minutes played better than any of the MSU starters.
You name the clichés for defeat, the Spartans committed them. Didn’t take care of the ball. One and done. No rhythm. No inside pressure. It was like watching Superman try to fly with a wad of kryptonite in his mouth. Before the 72,922 fans could get their throats to full throttle, the dream of the Green dug its sneakers into the hardwood with a screech.
Don’t forget the great moments
But if you believe a journey is worth the trip, then the end is just a part of it. Maybe not the happiest part. Watching the Spartans come out for the second half was like watching your kid have to finish the school play with a rip in his pants.
But for MSU, there was also everything that led to Monday night, beating last year’s national champions, Kansas, beating everyone’s No. 1 seed, Louisville, beating a perennial powerhouse, Connecticut. Those victories don’t go away with Monday’s 89-72 defeat. They simply take their place beside them, as part of an amazing tapestry that for one wonderful weekend, stitched this state and much of the nation a deep shade of green.
"Right now if you’re playing in this game, you’re playing better than anyone in the nation," Roy Williams told CBS before the game, "except maybe one team."
He’s right. And his was the one team.
No doubt which team was better
Hail to Williams’ kids. Used to adoration by fans and media, it might have wondered this weekend if it were still on the Earth. People jumped on the MSU bandwagon story, and blue was suddenly the color of evil.
But basketball is still played between the hoops, and there was no denying who was the better team Monday. The Tar Heels were like Gulliver stepping on Lilliputian houses. They couldn’t help being giants.
There was a reason Carolina beat everyone in this tournament by double digits. The Tar Heels began the year as an uber team and they finished it that way. Their four biggest stars who eschewed the NBA can taste a rare, sweet payoff for a dream deferred.
And MSU will have to live with one.
That’s OK. There is the end and there is the journey. Lucas was upstaged, but there were nights when he owned the floodlights. Raymar Morgan came back once; he can do it again. Travis Walton didn’t win it all, but the senior reached the season’s last game, as far as you can push a career. We didn’t erupt in celebration, but the world took notice of our town and our team, and left with a better – and truer – impression of both.
Hell of a party. We started by hosting it. We got to be a part of it. We owe that to a group of kids and a coach who never stopped believing in themselves, and, even heeled, shouldn’t stop now. Give ’em a hand.