You’ve heard plenty about Michigan State’s rejuvenated health. And Friday night, you saw why it’s been such a big deal.
The two guys the Spartans were waiting on throughout much of the season were the biggest factors in a 61-59 victory over one-seed Virginia.
Big men Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson were the only Spartans in double figures, combining for 40 points and 15 rebounds in the win, a game that not only got Michigan State a win from yet another Final Four but a game that proved why the Spartans were dubbed the favorite to come out of the East Region.
Payne missed seven games in the middle of the season with plantar fasciitis. Dawson missed nine games with a broken hand. But those woes are now things of the past, and these two are the ones carrying Michigan State deep into the tournament, heading toward what could be Tom Izzo’s fifth Final Four.
As the tournament has gone on, Payne and Dawson have proven to be the key pieces to the puzzle, and that was no different Friday night. Payne continued his all-over-the-court style of play, hitting a pair of 3-pointers and even throwing an alley-lop pass to Dawson late in the game. Dawson continued to be a rebounding force for the Spartans, hauling in 10 boards.
“All in all these two guys, we said we were going to have to go inside, we thought we would make them double us, and first play of the game Adreian made an incredible pass. We got a three. Kind of loosens them up right away,” Izzo said after the game. “And these two guys, we worked on some high‑to‑low and worked on some different things, but they both shot well from the line. They both rebounded pretty well. And we beat a hell of a team. So I'm just excited about it.”
A rejuvenated Michigan State has been playing like a one-seed, and that’s exactly who it defeated Friday. Virginia, the ACC champs, grabbed the one seed a Big Ten team couldn’t, thanks mainly to the Spartans’ defeat of Michigan in the conference tournament title game. But even still, healthy Michigan State was picked the favorite to make the Final Four, not Virginia.
The Cavaliers showed why they were a one-seed, fighting back against the Spartans, particularly in the second half. But for all Virginia’s runs, it was Michigan State that responded, showing why it was this region’s one-seed in the hearts and minds of many college basketball fans.
“We knew that they were going to be a good game, and we knew that they were going to go on a run,” Payne said. “They came out in the first half with a lot of energy, and they hit us in the mouth. And we just had to stay together, and that's what we did. We just tried to fight through it. And once we got everybody rolling and going, then we just tried to continue to keep the lead and just keep fighting from there.
“We just were hungry. We knew that it was going to be a dogfight, and we knew that around that time that they went on their run, it was winning time. And that's what you heard from the huddle. That's what you heard from everybody. We just tried to continue to stay together and fight from there.”
Next up for the Spartans is Connecticut, making the regional final a battle between a four-seed and a seven-seed, hardly the most conventional matchup. But wipe those numbers away and you’ll have two teams playing great basketball.
And, with all due respect to the Huskies, there aren’t many teams playing better than the Spartans. It’s how you become one of the Elite Eight.