Spartans fall one game shy of Final Four

Would Adreian Payne and Keith Appling make it to the Promised Land?

Since Tom Izzo became the head coach at Michigan State 19 years ago, every player he has recruited who stayed four seasons has played in the Final Four. The tradition started in 1999, when senior starting forwards Antonio Smith and Jason Klein helped the Spartans to their second Final Four in school history.

Izzo has taken teams to the Final Four five times since winning it all in 2000. But would the tradition continue on Sunday in an Elite Eight showdown with Connecticut at Madison Square Garden in New York?  A promise of reaching the game’s hallowed ground hung in the balance.

But the Spartans could never get into an offensive flow against the tenacious Huskies, who won the game, 60-54, because they dominated two areas. Connecticut forced MSU into 16 turnovers on one end of the court. And on the other end of the court, Connecticut made 21-of-22 free throws.

Huskies point guard Shabazz Napier took over the game, scoring 25 points with six rebounds and four assists. He totally dominated Appling, the senior from Detroit Pershing, who fouled out with 30.6 seconds left and an abysmal box score line. Appling had 2 points (1-for-3 field goals), 2 assists and 4 turnovers.

It was an awful way to have your dreams come crashing down.

Appling sat on the bench with a towel over his head, and reserve center Matt Costello had an arm around him. Before that, Izzo approached Appling for some encouraging words, and began by saying he did not believe Appling’s fifth foul was a foul.

"I thanked him for his four years," Izzo said. "I felt for him."

Sophomore guard Gary Harris did his best to keep MSU in the game, scoring 22 points. But nobody else stepped up to make an impact.

Payne, a 6-foot-10 senior center from Dayton, Ohio, had carried the Spartans as they won the Big Ten Tournament and advanced through March Madness. He scored a career-high 41 in the NCAA Tournament opener against Delaware.

But he could muster only 13 points and nine rebounds as Connecticut double-teamed him. Forward Branden Dawson couldn’t make the Huskies pay as he did in sparking the Sweet 16 win over No. 1 seed Virginia. Dawson finished with 5 points and 8 rebounds.

"They definitely tried to force me out and take jump shots," said Payne. "It was hard to get the ball down low."

Payne hit two three-pointers to spark a comeback after MSU fell behind, 12-2, in the early minutes of the game. But he ended up 3-for-10 on threes, often forcing long shots with the offense totally lacking rhythm.

"They could not even get into their half-court sets," said CBS-TV analyst Charles Barkley. "That was amazing."

Napier was a smothering presence for the Huskies from baseline to baseline.  Harris was asked what most impressed him about Napier.

"His will to win," said Harris. "You could see it. He wasn’t going to let his team lose … He’s a winner. He willed his team to victory."

Napier began his career as part of a team that beat Butler for the 2011 national championship game in Houston, and now gets a chance to win another title in Arlington, Texas.

And so the Final Four streak ended for Izzo’s seniors. Payne said it was on his mind in the final minutes.

"When it was getting closer to the end," Payne said, "it was on my mind a lot. For Keith and me not to make it is disappointing a lot."

Harris felt their pain.

"It’s tough," he said. "It’s not only going to be the seniors who didn’t make it. We were part of the team that didn’t make it."

Will this also end up being Harris’ final game for the Spartans? There’s speculation that he will be a top five pick in the NBA Draft if he opts to pass on playing his junior season.

"That’s the last thing on my mind right now," said Harris, when asked about the timing for his decision. "I’m still in shock."

Izzo continually used the term "out-of-body experience" to describe the 16 turnovers. Denzel Valentine matched Appling with four, and Dawson had three. The 32-30 edge the Spartans had in rebounds wasn’t enough to off-set the poor ball-handling and passing.

"I don’t feel as bad as I should because we got what we deserved," said Izzo, whose team finished 29-9. "We just didn’t seem as mentally into the game."

He was asked about the Final Four streak ending for his seniors.

"That streak doesn’t mean as much to me — as dumb as it sounds," Izzo said.

He said he didn’t make it a point as much as he had with other teams. But then Izzo allowed: "It’s sad, but you look at Appling and Payne: Sweet 16, Sweet 16, Elite Eight."

They were always contenders, but never got to play for the championship.