Gotta hand it to him: After bad break, Dawson leads Michigan State to Elite Eight

Michigan State Spartans guard/forward Branden Dawson (22) drives to the basket against Virginia Cavaliers forward/center Mike Tobey (10) and guard Joe Harris (12) during the second half in the semifinals of the east regional at Madison Square Garden.

Adam Hunger/Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

NEW YORK — Branden Dawson knew he wasn’t playing up to his potential, so much so that he took it out on himself. Watching film with teammates in January, Dawson was so frustrated by what he saw, he slammed his hand against a table — and nearly derailed Michigan State’s season in the process.

Dawson broke a bone in that right hand and missed nine games. It ended up serving as a wakeup call.

"I learned from it a lot," Dawson said. "I just decided I had to still come in every day and work hard. Being out for those nine games, I just told myself that my team needs me and I need to step up and be a man. That’s what I did."

Dawson definitely played like a man Friday night, leading No. 4 Michigan State past No. 1 Virginia, 61-59, in the NCAA tournament East Regional semifinals at Madison Square Garden. The 6-foot-6 junior forward had 24 points and 10 rebounds to help propel the Spartans into their first Elite Eight since 2010.

"I joked with him that God might have taken his hand when he broke it, but he might have given him a jump shot, because he’s shot a lot better," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said.

Final Four . . . for four

When Virginia (30-7) made its run in the second half, Dawson basically kept Michigan State (29-8) in the game. He either scored or assisted on the team’s first 12 points following halftime. Meanwhile for the game, Spartans stars Gary Harris and Keith Appling combined to score just eight points. Adreian Payne was the only other player in double figures with 16 points.

Virginia coach Tony Bennett knew it might be a long night when he saw Dawson get by Cavaliers senior Akil Mitchell, one of Virginia’€™s best defenders, twice in a row in the first half.

"When I saw him do that to Akil a few times, it made me nervous," Bennett said. "He’s a matchup problem because he’s so explosive, so athletic. He plays much bigger than his height."

And he almost wasn’t even here, long before the broken hand that threatened to end his season. Dawson nearly transferred from Michigan State after his freshman season, he acknowledged in a heartfelt Instagram post about Izzo earlier this month. Dawson was frustrated early in his career, because he wasn’t treated like a star the same way he was in high school — and he wasn’€™t playing like one either.

"I was ready to leave, but Coach told me to hang in there," Dawson said. "I believe in him. I trust him."

FOUL BALL

The Spartans wouldn’€™t be here without him. Michigan State went 4-5 in the month Dawson was out, their worst stretch of the season. It’s no surprise that the team is playing its best right now — Dawson has posted back-to-back 20-point games. He had 26 points and nine rebounds against Harvard in the third round last week.

"Sooner or later, you gotta put up or shut up," said Izzo, who has now been to eight Elite Eights in 17 years at Michigan State. "To Branden’s credit, he really has gotten better. But I swear he’s got a long way to go yet and that’s the exciting part for me."

Michigan State has a long way to go, too. On Sunday, the Spartans meet No. 7 Connecticut at 2:20 p.m. ET back here at the Garden. A win would earn them their first Final Four berth in four years. They have Dawson to thank for putting them in this spot.

"I can see why without him they were good [and] with him they were really good," Bennett said. "That’s what they need."