AUSTIN, Texas – A dragon at their feet, a castle in their sights. Yes, that was Michigan State beating Duke Friday night, felling the No. 1 seed, standing over the Blue Devils’ mystique and saying, “Yeah? So? What are you gonna do about it?”
With the spirit of the little engine that could, this plodding team that couldn’t is now one victory from the Final Four. And it just handed Tom Izzo something no other MSU team had ever given him: a victory over Duke and Mike Krzyzewski.
Not bad for a team of underachievers, right? Not bad for a team that was supposed to lack character or leadership. Wasn’t this the Spartans group that wore a scarlet “D” for “disappointment?” Ha. How about a “D” for “disbelief?” This team that couldn’t get past its first game in its conference tournament has now survived three rounds of the all-comers extravaganza. On Sunday, it faces second-seeded Kentucky for a ticket to the Big Dance.
And, honestly, doesn’t anything seem possible now?
“We beat a very, very, very, very, very good team,” said a smiling, froggy-throated Izzo, after the stunning 78-68 victory. “I’m just tickled to death.”
How many “verys” was that?
Ah, forget it. Add a few more. For this was a very, very unusual game. It was an exhausting, messy war. Seemingly every point was fought over, or reviewed, or taken away, or slammed. Shots clanked. Shots missed entirely. Balls were dropped, stolen, fumbled, bumbled, pinned against backboards or thrown out of bounds.
But in the end, the Spartans were the team that kept their heads while the Blue Devils lost theirs. MSU hit big three-pointers while Duke missed 16 of 23. The Spartans wanted the loose balls more, chasing down the offensive rebounds, making sure that if the first shot missed, there would be another and another. Keep trying until you get it right, until you score, until you win.
Until the dragon is at your feet.
“They certainly deserved to win,” Krzyzewski said.
And he coaches the other guys.
The big man in the middle
No one symbolized this deservedness more than Paul Davis, the Spartans’ lumbering junior center. He has often symbolized this particular MSU group, hailed for his potential but assailed for his results. The postseason has never been his best friend.
But Friday night he was electrifying. He led the game in points (20), offensive rebounds (seven), total rebounds (12) and second-chance effort. Every time the Spartans missed an important basket, Davis seemed to fly in to grab the rebound to give them one more try.
“Paul was aggressive,” said his teammate, Alan Anderson. “Aggressive. He was attacking the glass. If he missed a jump shot, he didn’t put his head down and run down the court – he went after it to try and get another shot. His whole demeanor from the jump ball to the last free throw was just aggressive.”
The key word is aggressive.
But that’s how you have to be to beat Duke, isn’t it? You can’t wait for the Blue Devils to relax. They don’t. You can’t wait for them to screw up. You have to force it. And the Spartans forced it. They hounded J.J. Redick, the Duke shooting star, into an awful, disjointed performance, just four baskets in 14 attempts. It was as bad a night as most observers remembered from the junior guard who had been huge all season.
“But they weren’t just guarding J.J.,” Krzyzewski said. “They were guarding everybody. They took our vision away. There were times when we had people open, but we just didn’t see them. There was too much pressure on the ball. It’s like rushing the quarterback. You can’t see the receiver.”
It’s true. The Spartans were like a defensive line, blitzing all the time. When they weren’t hounding Redick, they were poking the ball from another Duke star, Daniel Ewing, who coughed it up six times, or Sean Dockery, who gave it back four times, or Shelden Williams, who turned it over four more.
So manic was the Spartans’ defense that late in the game Redick threw a pass that missed everybody and landed in Coach K’s hands.
Sorry, guys. He’s not allowed to shoot.
When the night was over, Duke had as many turnovers (22) as baskets.
Until you hear the buzzer.
A first in the modern era
And at the buzzer, what a sight. The Spartans were happy. Yes. Happy. Jumping up and down. Slamming the air with their towels and fists, using the semaphore of winners who knew they could do it, but had heretofore failed to convince anyone else.
“We knew what we could do,” Davis said. “A lot of things now are paying off for us. Our schedule last year. Our experience. It really did help that we played Duke earlier in the year. Even though we lost, playing them as well as we did in their court, we were confident coming in here. We weren’t thinking of ourselves as underdogs.”
Maybe no one else is either. Not after a few of those monster slams by Shannon Brown and Maurice Ager, or those quickly buried threes by Anderson, or that aggressive rebounding – there’s that word again – by Davis.
But whatever happens next, the Spartans have already done something special. A No. 5 seed beating a No. 1 seed is noteworthy whenever it happens – more so if the opponent is wearing Duke across its chest.
“You know, with 10 seconds left, we had a time-out,” Izzo said. “And I told them not to celebrate, to do this with some class, we’ve still got more games to play.
“But I want to say this. And I told them this before the game. There s a lot of things we haven’t done, but there’s been no Michigan State team since what, 1958, really the modern era, that has beaten Duke. So this is a chance to do something your predecessors haven’t done.
“Everyone tells you what your predecessors have done that you haven’t. Now you can turn it around.”
It’s turned. It’s buried. It’s at their feet, an accomplishment that can never be taken away. Down goes Duke. On goes MSU. You start this tournament chasing castles in the sky, and suddenly, you look up, and the sky – and the castle – doesn’t seem so far away.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read recent columns by Albom, go to www.freep.com/index/albom.