Photo: Michigan State senior guard Travis Trice.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Five times Virginia trimmed Michigan State’s lead to a two-score game in the second half’s final 11 minutes Sunday afternoon at Time Warner Cable Arena.
Five times the Virginia faithful, clad in orange and outnumbering Michigan State partisans with the game played in a neighboring state among the crowd of 18,422, rose with a roar to urge on their team.
But each time seventh-seeded Michigan State responded with a score or a defensive stop to preserve the two-score edge and eventually build on it en route to a 60-54 upset of No. 2 seed Virginia in the NCAA Tournament East Region third-round game that advanced the Spartans to the Sweet Sixteen.
“When we needed a key stop or a bucket to be made, it wasn’t there,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett lamented. “And again, Michigan State is playing good ball right now. They’re very tough and they’ve got some guys who have made some big plays in that setting.”
Michigan State (25-11) advanced to the Sweet Sixteen for the seventh time in the last eight years and 13th during its 18-year streak of NCAA appearances under head coach Tom Izzo that is the fourth longest in the nation. The Spartans will face No. 3 seed Oklahoma (24-10), which came from behind in the second half to defeat No. 11 seed Dayton in Columbus. The Spartans and Sooners meet at 10:07 ET Friday at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse.
Virginia, the ACC regular-season champion and No. 6-ranked team in the nation, finished 30-4. It was the second straight year the Spartans eliminated Virginia. Last year the teams met in a Sweet Sixteen game with the Michigan State winning at Madison Square Garden.
Michigan State senior guard Travis Trice scored an NCAA career-high 23 points with eight in the final 4:21 to lead the Spartans. Senior forward Branden Dawson added a near-double-double with 15 points and nine rebounds. Anthony Gill led Virginia with 11 points and Darion Atkins added 10.
“Draymond Green said this morning, ‘Don’t let this be your last game,’ ” Trice said of his former teammate now with the Golden State Warriors. “I texted him back and said I won’t. That was our mindset coming in. We knew they were a great team, and we had to jump on them early.”
That they did. Ultimately the game came down to a 10-0 spurt by Michigan State in the opening five minutes. The rest of the way the teams essentially traded baskets. The run for a 15-4 lead was fueled by Trice despite Virginia guard Malcolm Brogden shutting down junior Denzel Valentine. Trice hit three three-point field goals, dunked to finish a fast break and scored on layup.
But when Valentine picked up his second foul and went to the bench, Virginia switched Brogden to Trice. He didn’t score the remainder of the half as he struggled to get around Brogden or was halted by swift switches and double-teams by Virginia’s “Pack-Line” defense. Trice finished with the half with the same 13 points he scored in the game’s opening five and a half minutes.
“I didn’t have a doubt in my mind throughout the course of that game that we weren’t going to win,” Virginia junior guard Justin Anderson said. “This team has resiliency and ability to fight no matter what the circumstances may be. I just felt we had our heads in the game and we had to fight back. It hurts when you work that hard and they score.”
But Michigan State also threw a strong defensive effort at the Cavaliers. They adjusted how they covered the Cavaliers guards while coming off screens from their usual style of playing tight on the ball. They continued to keep defenders close to the lane in a style similar to Virginia's patented Pack Line defense. Virginia was only 17-of-57 for its lowest shooting percentage of the at 29.8. The Cavaliers were 2-of-17 from three-point range for 11.8 percent and one of the three-pointers was with 26 seconds left by Brogdon.
“I can't tell you how proud and excited I am for these guys,” Izzo said. “Especially the seniors and juniors – the guys that have been through a lot this year. I'm not sure of all the great teams we've had, I've ever had one in a day change what we do on a game plan and execute it as well as they did. I'm just proud of them, excited for them and looking forward to moving on.”