KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Who lost?
How could anyone lose in this? This was a classic. A battle of guts. All right, so Michigan State comes home today, their NCAA tournament over two wins shy of the Final Four.
Don’t look for tears here. This was more of a Spartans’ victory than a lot of victories, this 96-86 loss to Kansas. For this was a night when the team that drew its life’s blood from a jut-jawed young man named Scott Skiles, suddenly found itself without him for seven minutes that could have killed the Spartans. They didn’t shrivel. They didn’t bleed. They didn’t die.
This was a night that a game went into overtime only because of a missed free throw by an MSU freshman, a game that may have been lost because of a timekeeping error. Either way, just for the Spartans to have come that far was amazing.
For seven minutes of the first half, they fought against the obvious. Skiles was on the bench with three fouls and there was no way they should even stay on the court. They stayed. And when Skiles returned in the second half and helped pull his team back into the game, they were all wearing amulets of courage around their necks, these Spartans, and you can’t ask for more of a victory than that.
There was Barry Fordham — Barry Fordham? — who isn’t supposed to score points, scoring points because, well, because he had to. And Larry Polec pulling down rebounds he wasn’t supposed to get — Kansas, remember, is so much taller — because he had to. And Skiles, fighting off the defenders that stuck to him like wet jeans.
This was an all-out war between a team everyone had predicted would be great, Kansas, and one no one gave a chance, MSU. When it was over, the Kansas coach would call the Spartans “the toughest team he ever had to face.” It was blood and guts all night and it would come down to the final seconds, that much you could tell. The noise was frightening
But back up a minute. For this was a game played in the eye of the hurricane, 37 miles from the campus the Jayhawks call home. And by NCAA tournament standards, that’s your backyard. The noise inside Kemper Arena was frightening — no matter how long you sat there you never got used to it — because with every basket the concrete seemed to rattle. Kansas fans.
Kansas had soared on this kind of support all season long, riding it — and a cornfield worth of talent — to a Big Eight title and a No. 2 ranking. They had a legitimate superstar in Danny Manning and three other guys, Calvin Thompson, Ron Kellogg and Greg Dreiling, who had more than 1,000 points each in their Kansas careers. They had a touch of flash in guard Cedric Hunter and a coach named Larry Brown who spends every spring in the NCAA tournament.
In other words, no surprise they were here.
Michigan State, on the other hand, was the unexpected guest your kid brings home from college on spring break. The NCAA experts figured the Spartans would be gone by now, neatly eliminated, and instead they had to clean out the spare bedroom and put on new sheets. “Make them green and white,” the Spartans seemed to say, confidently, as if they were sure they’d be around for at least another week.
The first half of this game was MSU flashing a new identity, missing Skiles — who was on the bench with three fouls — but not folding. The second half was MSU whittling down a nine-point deficit to pull ahead as the game drew toward an end.
And the last few minutes? The last few minutes were incredible. It was a noisy blur like the view through a subway window. The teams trading baskets, time ticking away. A technical foul on Kansas that sent Skiles to the line with less than two minutes left and every Jayhawks fan in the place wanting his head. The Spartans had an 80-74 lead with 1:39 left, but somehow you knew this was fated to come down to the last seconds. And it did.
What a script! Here, after a game where the superstars (Skiles, Manning) had been both brilliant and foul-plagued, the thing was resting on a foul shot by a Spartans freshman named Mark Brown, who looks like he’s in fifth grade. He had been put in the game to handle an in-bounds pass, and the skeptics will question why a freshman should do that in a game as big as this. Question away. It won’t change anything. With an 80-78 MSU lead, Brown’s shot bounced off the rim, Kansas rebounded, pushed it downcourt and tied it up.
It went into overtime, and there Kansas just had too much.
But OK. It didn’t go the way Michigan State wanted. But it couldn’t have been any gutsier. It couldn’t have been any tougher. And they couldn’t be asked to do any more.
This is the way the NCAA tournament works. Each game is a new season for two teams, and each buzzer means one of those seasons must end. This morning is another springtime for Kansas, and it feels like winter in Michigan.
But there were no losers. Not here.