Spartans hold off Harvard, advance to Sweet 16

Michigan State's Branden Dawson celebrates the Spartans' victory over Harvard and a spot in the Sweet 16.

James Snook/James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes the NCAA tournament isn’t about style points. It’s about survival.

Michigan State’s basketball team can relate to that after holding onto an 80-73 victory over Harvard on Saturday night.

The underdog Crimson trailed by as many as 16 points but put on a second-half burst to take a few brief leads and put a scare into the Spartans.

The Spartans prevailed in the final minutes, though, and the reward for moving on is another Sweet 16 berth — the 12th in the last 17 seasons for coach Tom Izzo.

They will face the winner of Sunday night’s game between No. 1 seed Virginia and Memphis on Thursday at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

MSU forward Branden Dawson scored a career-high 26, feeding off the fast-break potency the Spartans displayed in the first half. Guard Gary Harris pitched in with 18 and hit some big shots with the outcome on the line.

That duo stepped up in a game in which many MSU players weren’t at their best. Center Adreian Payne followed up his career-best 41 points against Delaware with only 12 against Harvard. And both Payne and point guard Keith Appling got into foul trouble down the stretch.

Harris said that the one thing the team did as a collective was to avoid splintering. He pointed to late-season losses to Michigan and Illinois when that occurred.

"I didn’t have any doubt at all," he said of Saturday’s tough victory. "I could tell by everyone’s body language that we were sticking together. It was good for us."

He recalled the bickering after those defeats to the Wolverines and Fighting Illini.

"We got down as a team and started pointing fingers," Harris said.

But this time, they simply pointed to the finish line and found it.

"We had to stay together as a team," Payne said, "and continue to fight."

Harris hit two free throws with 26.3 seconds left with the calm of somebody taking extra shots after practice. That made for a 78-71 lead and all but wrapped it up.

Harvard cut the lead to five points and fouled Harris with 9.2 seconds left. He walked across half court with a smile and stopped to reach down for a low-five from Appling, then drilled to more free throws for the final score.

"He’s almost too unselfish at times," Izzo said of Harris.

Izzo relayed the message Payne had for him about Harris in a late team huddle: "We’ve got to go to him."

The Spartans did, and Harris responded.

Although he was most responsible for pulling it out, Dawson was the key to building the big lead that got away.

"My teammates got me the ball," he said, "and I was thankful to hit some shots."

Dawson, the Big Ten Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, averaged 9.7 points during the regular season. He’s averaged 16.2 per game in five postseason tournament games.

"He did a great job in there," Izzo said of Dawson’s play in the paint. "Just a great job."

Dawson broke his right hand in anger during the beginning of the Big Ten season, and with just over a minute to go Saturday, he appeared to reinjure the same hand. He took off his protective wrap and winced in pain.

Izzo joked that Dawson was just soliciting for "sympathy" and noted that he didn’t rush out onto the court to show concern.

"It’s not anything," Izzo said. "No, he’s good."

The Spartans got what they wanted in Spokane, Wash. They left with two victories and assured they’d be one of only 16 teams to do that in the first days of March Madness.

When asked about the need to blow somebody out, Harris could only smile and say: "It’s what we did this weekend. We survived and we’re advancing."