by | Feb 20, 2013 | Detroit Free Press, Sports | 0 comments

EAST LANSING – With less than 50 seconds left, the ball came off the rim and Denzel Valentine watched it, like everyone watching at home and almost everyone inside the building.

Almost everyone – except the man Valentine was supposed to be guarding, Indiana’s Victor Oladipo, who, while the entire free world was captivated by the action, zoomed down the baseline and leapt perfectly to tap the ball in.

It gave the Hoosiers a lead they would not lose.

“The killer,” as coach Tom Izzo put it.

Indiana 72, Michigan State 68. I pretty sure the better team won, but I’m dead certain the best player won it for them. Oladipo, the son of Nigerian parents and the envy of every college coach in America, was smarter, faster, smarter, more athletic, smarter, cooler and smarter than the rest. You look to every key moment in this hugely hyped game, and he was there.

After MSU finally grabbed the lead deep into the second half, Oladipo stole the ball and wound up slamming it home to take the lead back.

After that tip-in the final minute, Oladipo broke free on a crucial inbounds play, took a baseball pass and slammed it in for a 70-67 edge.

When MSU deliberately missed a free throw in hopes of a put-back with 4 seconds left – Oladipo grabbed the defensive rebound.

And when he was fouled, he made both free throws – something the Spartans couldn’t do when it counted.

“He’s got unbelievable heart,” Izzo said, gushing about the Indiana kid the way he gushes about his own. Then again, when one guy drops 19 points, nine rebounds, five steals and a block on you – gushing is appropriate.

Spartans disappear

It didn’t help that while Oladipo was Playing Big, several of Izzo’s guys opted for Playing Invisible. Derrick Nix, Keith Appling and Branden Dawson were so ineffective in the first half, you weren’t sure if they were out there or at home. Nix and Appling had some redeeming moments in the second half, but against Indiana, No. 1 in the nation, you need all cylinders from the opening gun.

“We had some key players that weren’t into the game,” Izzo said. “…(Indiana) came into our house where we should be eight points better and controlled a large part of the game.”

And with little spark from older guys (Adreian Payne being the exception) MSU had to lean on young guns Valentine and Gary Harris. Harris was mostly terrific (19 points) especially for a freshman, but he couldn’t hit free throws when they were critical – including a rare chance when he was fouled taking a three-pointer in the final seconds and the Spartans down, 70-67. Harris missed the first attempt, blowing the Spartans’ last real chance to tie it up.

Meanwhile, as MSU endured youthful mistakes, Oladipo, a junior, was flawless when it counted. Thanks to him, Indiana ended a 22-year losing streak in East Lansing.

“How do you stay so calm in an arena like this?” someone asked him.

“This isn’t my first rodeo,” he said. “…You can’t lose your composure when they go on runs.”

He sounds like a coach. Or a steer roper.

MSU ‘didn’t answer the bell’

Too bad for MSU. A win might have gone a long ways toward a Big Ten title and a No 1 tournament seed. The Spartans had all the stops pulled out – including Magic Johnson on the ESPN mikes. But from the tip, Breslin was a far cry from a week earlier, when State trounced archrival Michigan in its best game in years. This game had similar hype, but not similar focus. Izzo groused about distractions and maybe that was true.

But you have to nod at this Indiana team. Oladipo isn’t even its most-hyped player. Cody Zeller, a 7-foot center, had 17 points and five rebounds on an off night. Other Hoosiers can shoot and can pressure. Throw in a court-savvy guy like Oladipo, reminiscent of a young Dwyane Wade, and you have a bona fide No.1 team.

“We didn’t answer the bell,” Izzo said. And OK. There are other bells to come. These two teams may meet again this year. If so, Izzo will lose what little voice he has left imploring his guys to never, ever, take their eyes off No. 4, lest he zoom in when you’re watching the ball and … you know.

“The way (Oladipo) played the game was excellent,” said his coach, Tom Crean. “The way he finished the game…”

Stop. You just said.

He finished the game.

End of story.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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