No. 1-seed Virginia (30-7) fell 61-59 to the No. 4-seed Michigan State (29-8), and while it was a result many seemed to anticipate, they couldn’t have expected the way it happened.
It was going head-to-head with a close game between in-state rivals Louisville and Kentucky, and millions nationwide were wearing out the previous channel button on their remote controls trying to follow the action in both close contests.
Virginia had the final shot that would have won it, but Justin Anderson’s heave after an intentionally-missed free throw fell well short at the buzzer.
It was beautiful in its ugliness at times, and it should be used as Exhibit A evidence that a defensive struggle can be just as pretty, if not more so, than an offensive shootout. Almost all shots were contested, bodies were hitting the floor left and right scrapping for loose balls and nothing came easy.
Michigan State is one of the better offensive teams in the country when rolling, and there were times when the Spartans offense was just too good. But more often than not, Virginia made the Spartans do what they’ve made opponents do all season — work for everything they got. Michigan State ultimately finished the game shooting 45 percent.
Virginia, though, shot just 35 percent for the game and 32.1 percent in the second half. Michigan State’s defense for much of the night was as good as Virginia’s, and the Spartans particularly made an impression early.
Virginia had a bit of a shaky start, trailing 23-13, and it seemed like the stage might be too big for them, but they went on a 10-0 run to retake the lead and were absolutely dominant on defense for the first 6-and-a-half minutes of the second half. Michigan State missed its first six shots in that span and turned it over three times. Virginia was disrupting every pass, contesting every shot and Michigan State was clearly bothered.
The Spartans calmed down, ultimately, and the Cavaliers couldn’t knock down shots in that stretch to pull away. Michigan State’s slightly superior offense was the difference, but it was as fun to watch as any defensive battle you’ll see.
Virginia has been great this year because it hasn’t had to rely too much on Joe Harris, its best player last year. And there was no way to tell who would step up for Virginia, but it was seemingly always someone different.
In this game, though, Harris was 6-of-14 shooting for 17 points and even missed a few relatively open looks from three. Those 14 shots were nearly a quarter of Virginia’s attempts for the game. He and sophomore Malcolm Brogdon combined for 28 shots; no one else on the team shot more than seven times.
Still, credit to Michigan State for playing good defense. And Harris hit some big shots, particularly a three-pointer that cut Michigan State’s lead to two with 41 seconds left. He ends a fantastic Virginia career and while he struggled in his last game, he should be remembered for his unselfishness this year in deferring to his teammates.
And Michigan State just kept coming. The Spartans were relentless, responding to every Virginia gut-punch or potential momentum-shifter with a big shot or big play of their own. The dagger was senior Adreian Payne’s three-pointer with 1:29 to go.
His head coach Tom Izzo had just gotten on him about passing up a shot, and he didn’t pass up that one. He then got a defensive rebound on the other end and found Branden Dawson (who led all scorers with 24 points) for a dunk, which put Michigan State up five with 41 seconds to go.
Payne did some of this against one of the best defenders — if not the best — in the ACC, Virginia’s Akil Mitchell. He had to work for everything he got, and it was his toughness and will that helped carry the Spartans to victory.
The Cavaliers will no doubt feel like they left a lot of chances on the table — they converted 14 offensive rebounds into just 11 second-chance points, for one, and probably have some shots they’d want back — but they fought hard.
And for stretches, Virginia showed a nation that might not have been paying attention that its defense — and the program under head coach Tony Bennett — is for real, in case anyone was wondering.
It wasn’t the way the Cavaliers wanted their season to end, certainly. But they still finished the year with 30 wins (tying a school record) and the program’s first Sweet 16 berth since 1995. Not to mention basically steamrolling the rest of the ACC most of the year.
Bennett’s program is clearly on the rise and will return everyone except Harris and Mitchell. As long as the young talent can keep coming along, Virginia will continue to compete for the top spot in the ACC for the foreseeable future.