Elite State; Spartans hold off Virginia 61-59

NEW YORK (DETROIT FREE PRESS) - No, you will not run. Yes, you will be defended like you're playing 5-on-8.

And you'd better play smart basketball if you're going to beat a team coached by a Bennett.

Tom Izzo played Dick Bennett 13 times, and every one of those games was roughly the same as his first meeting with Dick's son, Tony. It was slow, it was full of bumps and grabs and scratches, and it came down to one team displaying more mental toughness and intelligence at the end – the Michigan State Spartans.

The No. 4 seed Spartans (29-8) will take on No. 7 seed Connecticut (28-8) at 2:20 p.m. Sunday at Madison Square Garden in the East regional final. The winner will advance to the Final Four, with national semifinals set for a week from today in Arlington, Texas.

The Huskies, cheered on by a large throng of fans, beat No. 3 seed Iowa State 81-76 in the other semifinal Friday, getting 27 points from DeAndre Daniels and 19 from senior guard Shabazz Napier. Much of the same UConn team beat much of the same MSU team, 66-62, to open last season on Ramstein Air Base in Germany.

Tom Izzo will be going for his seventh Final Four and first since 2010. This is his eighth Elite Eight appearance, and he brings a 6-1 record in regional finals to the game.

The first possession of the game summed up the challenges for both teams. Virginia played excellent defense and doubled Payne on the catch. But MSU was patient and Payne finally found Denzel Valentine for a three as the shot clock expired.

The early action went MSU's way. Payne hit a three, a two and a pair of foul shots, then Dawson got inside for a pair of baskets. His third, a dunk off a Travis Trice feed, made it 21-11 Spartans and prompted Virginia coach Tony Bennett to call timeout midway through the first.

The Cavaliers responded, to the delight of their noisy fans. A Gary Harris force missed, and a Kenny Kaminski defensive mistake on the other end allowed Joe Harris to hit a three and get past his early struggles.

That sequence changed everything. The Spartans would not score for nearly six minutes and not convert a field goal for nearly seven, and the Cavaliers would go on a 12-0 run

MSU's offense had no answers, and its defense, so sharp early, was giving up driving lanes and open looks. Gary Harris finally ended that with a driving three-point play, and that helped the Spartans finish the half on an 8-2 spurt to take a 31-27 lead to the break.

Virginia came out with more aggression to start the second, though, and a 9-1 run gave the Cavaliers a 36-32 lead. The Spartans went the first 6:41 of the second half without a basket.

That ended with an emphatic Dawson putback dunk, followed by a Dawson roar. And that got MSU going. Dawson tied the game with a layup and hit Trice for a transition three to cap a 7-0 run and make it 43-40 MSU.

It was 51-44 MSU with the clock running out on Virginia – but the Cavaliers responded with a 7-0 run to tie it on Justin Anderson's corner triple.

MSU called timeout and Appling found Payne for a three. He nailed it with 1:31 left, setting up a frantic finish.

Contact Joe Rexrode: jrexrode@freepress.com . Follow him on Twitter @joerexrode . Check out his MSU blog at freep.com/heyjoe .


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