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July 17, 2009

The best games

As in, great contests, not necessarily biggest victories.

The biggest win is MSU over Louisville to get to the Final Four (and the best moment is the week of euphorics that followed directly), but it was not a thrilling game after Louisville's will was crushed. (Boy, did they crumble). I've included excerpts from our game stories where I could find them. This is heavy on the football and basketball, there are surely dozens of terrific contests in other sports that were worthy. But I didn't see those, and you probably didn't, either.

1. MSU 25, Wisconsin 24 (football)
    Unable to run the ball, unable to stop the run, depleted by mounting injuries, down 11 points with eight minutes left in the game, Michigan State summoned good fortune and heroic efforts from quarterback Brian Hoyer and kicker Brett Swenson to stun the Badgers, 25-24.
    Hoyer’s last-gasp, 56-yard drive led to Swenson’s 44-yard field goal with seven seconds left to win it, setting off a wild celebration, keeping No. 22 MSU (8-2 overall, 5-1 Big Ten) in the league title hunt and all but assuring a New Year’s Day bowl bid.
    “Give Wisconsin a lot of credit. They gave us their best punch – really, they dominated us for most of the game,” said Hoyer, who keyed three scoring drives in the final 8:13 with clutch completions. “But when it came down to it, we made more plays than they did.”
    The Spartans’ 5-1 mark through six league games is the program’s best since the 1987 team that won the Big Ten and the Rose Bowl. If MSU can defeat Purdue at home in a week, then pull a road upset at No. 3 Penn State on Nov. 22, the Spartans will have at least a share of their first championship since 1990.
    And in the moments after keeping those dreams alive -- then carrying Swenson around the field like a child at a parade -- they weren’t totally sure how they did it.
    “It all just sort of flashed in front of me,” said Dantonio, whose 15 wins are the most by an MSU coach in his first two seasons.
    “Great teams find a way to win,” MSU defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said, “and that’s what our kids did.”
    Wisconsin couldn’t really explain it, either. The Badgers, a preseason top-10 team, showed why for most of the game – but fell to 4-5 overall and 1-5 in the Big Ten.
    This was similar in some ways to Wisconsin’s 27-25 loss at Michigan on Sept. 27, in which it blew a 19-0 lead.
    “I told our guys in the locker room that, for whatever reason, they are being tested the most they will ever be in their life from a football standpoint,” said Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema, who played a key role in MSU’s turnaround.
    John Clay’s 32-yard touchdown run made it 24-13 Wisconsin with 9:19 left. At that point, the Badgers had a rushing edge of 238 to 45 (it would end up 281 to 25).
    But Bielema, who had been sparring with the officials all day, picked up a 5-yard penalty and a 15-yard penalty for barking at them after the ensuing kickoff.
    MSU started its possession at the Wisconsin 41, and a 38-yard Hoyer pass to Charlie Gantt on third-and-17 led to Javon Ringer’s second touchdown run. The 60-second drive ended with an incompletion on a 2-point try and made the score 24-19.
    Wisconsin went three plays and out. MSU got to the Badgers’ 17, but a 16-yard sack of Hoyer forced a 50-yard Swenson try with 5:16 left. He nailed it to make it 24-22.
    Still, the Badgers were in control. They picked up a pair of first downs and appeared to have the game clincher on a Clay run deep in MSU territory. It was called back for holding.
    Wisconsin punted. Hoyer started the final drive at MSU’s 17, with 1:19 on the clock. Big shots of 20 and 32 yards to Blair White (seven catches, 164 yards) made Swenson’s winner possible.
    “He answered the bell,” Dantonio said of Hoyer.

2. Iowa State 69, MSU 68 (women's basketball)
Sorry, it was a thriller. From the AP:
    Michigan State had gone ahead 68-61 on Aisha Jefferson’s jumper with 1:26 left and appeared poised to pull off another upset.
    Nicky Wieben started the comeback with her only basket of the game on a putback and the Cyclones (27-8) turned up the defensive pressure for a change. A steal by Kelsey Bolte in the backcourt led to Heather Ezell’s banked-in 3-pointer that cut the lead to 68-66 with a minute to go.
    “We don’t practice that a lot, only for special situations,” Fennelly said of the press. “We just want everybody lined up right. … That’s not a normal way for Iowa State to win a game, but that’s what tournament basketball is all about. At that point you’re scrambling.”
    Lykendra Johnson then turned it over in the backcourt again for Michigan State (22-11), setting up Lacey’s heroics. Iowa State tried to get the ball inside but Amanda Nisleit missed and Allyssa DeHaan blocked Bolte’s follow attempt.
    The loose ball made it out to Lacey, who drained the 3-pointer to give her 29 points and the Cyclones the lead. The Iowa State players poured off the bench to mob Lacey at midcourt during a timeout, but the win was far from secure.
    Kalisha Keane missed a 3-pointer for the Spartans, who kept possession after a jump ball on the rebound. Following a timeout, Jefferson and Johnson missed shots from in close to give the Cyclones the win.
    “It was such a whirlwind of emotion when they came down with the ball and got another shot off,” Nisleit said. “You can’t describe it. It was so exciting to be out there.”
    Iowa State’s players rushed out to center court once again to celebrate, while many of the Spartans fell to the ground in despair. DeHaan scored 24 points to lead Michigan State, but didn’t get a touch on the last possession and walked off the court with tears in her eyes.
    “I think we had a couple of good looks at it,” DeHaan said. “We hit the boards hard but we didn’t get the call in our favor. That’s how it goes sometimes. It was unfortunate. The game shouldn’t just be decided on that last play.”
    Iowa State advanced to face second-seeded Stanford (32-4) for a trip to the Final Four on Monday night. The Cardinal beat third-seeded Ohio State 84-66.
    Both teams faced some doubts about their credentials despite making it to the regional semifinals. Iowa State benefited from two-time defending champion Tennessee’s loss to 12th-seeded Ball State in the first round. There will still be some skeptics because Michigan State cleared top-seeded Duke out of the bracket with a second-round win on its homecourt.
    The Spartans wanted to prove they could win away from the Breslin Center as well, and appeared to do so with strong play in the second half. The game was tied going into the final 6 minutes before DeHaan sparked an 8-1 run with a couple of hook shots. Jefferson’s basket appeared to seal it for the Spartans before they fell apart in the final minutes.
    “We got a little soft with the ball against the pressure,” coach Suzy Merchant said. “We got a little complacent down the stretch. We turned it over and they took advantage of it.”

3. MSU 67, Kansas 62 (men's basketball)
    No. 2 seed MSU beat No. 3 seed Kansas, 67-62, with Lucas putting his team ahead for good with a jumper, plus the foul and free throw, with 48.1 seconds left.
    “I had some guys that just didn’t want to lose,” MSU coach Tom Izzo said. “We beat a very good team but I was really proud of the way my guys fought back when they could have died a few times.”
    The Spartans (29-6) will play No. 1 seed Louisville here Sunday in the regional finals for a trip to the Final Four in Detroit. The Cardinals (31-5), the tournament’s overall No. 1 seed, mopped the floor with No. 12 seed Arizona on Friday, 103-64.
    The 29 victories stands alone as the third-best mark in MSU history, behind only the 1999 Final Four team (33) and 2000 national title team (32).
    MSU will be going for its fifth Final Four under Izzo, in a span of 11 years. The program’s sixth Elite Eight in that time was earned with clutch play after clutch play.
    The Jayhawks led 58-53 with less than four minutes left, but the Spartans closed the game on a 14-4 run, another championship effort in a special season in East Lansing.
    “I think that’s why we’ve got a great team … it was a team effort of encouraging each other to keep pushing,” said MSU senior guard Travis Walton, who had a key late jumper and led MSU’s defense to a crunch-time takeover.
    Lucas set up his game-winning offensive play with a huge defensive play. He stole a pass from Kansas star Sherron Collins that was intended for the team’s other star, center Cole Aldrich, with the game tied at 60 apiece and just over a minute remaining.
    “It was a big-time play, he just stepped right in front of it,” Izzo said of Lucas’ fourth steal of the game. “It (wasn’t) a bad play by Collins, I thought it was a great defensive play.”
    Then, after a timeout with 1:07 left, MSU spread the floor and let Lucas go to work on Collins. He drove, pump-faked, got Collins in the air, took a hit and nailed a 15-foot jumper.
    “I tried to create and I just got lucky,” Lucas said.
    “We would have been better off just fouling the crap out of him, rather than giving him the easy and-one,” said Kansas coach Bill Self, whose Jayhawks (27-8) just missed on a chance to avenge a 75-62 victory at MSU in January.

4. MSU 74, USC 69 (men's basketball)
    Travis Walton going off for 18 on the triangle-and-two designed to make him shoot...
    The Trojans kept coming, even with star forward Taj Gibson held to three points by his own foul trouble – he fouled out in 23 minutes – and the defense of Suton and friends.
    Suton’s defensive job was “unbelievable,” Izzo said, although MSU put “a village around him” when he tried to attack. Gibson hit all 10 of his shots and scored 24 points in Friday’s 72-55 rout of Boston College.
    NBA-quality guards Dwight Lewis (19 points) and DeMar DeRozan (18) kept  USC in it. A Lewis jumper gave USC a 65-64 lead with 6:19 left.
    Green answered by grabbing an offensive rebound on the other end, drawing a foul and hitting both foul shots. Green held position moments later and Gibson fouled out going over his back. Green hit another free throw for a 67-65 lead.
    USC tied it twice, but Walton answered each time with jump shots. The Trojans did not score at all in the final 3:53, and they didn’t have basket in the final 4:36.
    “I was shocked that he did make some of those shots,” Izzo said of Walton, “and you can imagine what went through Tim’s mind.”
    USC coach Tim Floyd, that is. He said Walton “surprised us” with the shooting.

5. MSU 8, Michigan 7 (baseball).
If you missed this one -- MSU's first baseball win over U-M since 2006 -- allow the prose of Chris Solari to transport you.
    Bo Felt got just enough of the pitch. Eric Roof shuffled just long enough to distract the infielder, then raced home just in time to beat the throw.
    And somehow inexplicably, Michigan State found just enough Friday afternoon to erase two late deficits and edge Michigan, 8-7 in 11 innings, for a signature win at new McLane Stadium.
    "I think we were still on a high from (Thursday) night," said Felt, referring to MSU's 12-2 win in the Crosstown Showdown against the Lansing Lugnuts. "We just wanted to carry over to play our rivals. We wanted a win, and we grinded it out all day for the 'W.' "
    MSU (13-21, 4-6 Big Ten) trailed in the bottom of the ninth when it benefited from a two-run Wolverine error to send the game to extra innings. The Spartans then fell behind again in the top of the 10th on a two-run homer by Michigan's Mike Dufek, only to take advantage of U-M's bullpen meltdown in the bottom half to again tie the score at 7.
    Roof was hit by a pitch to lead off in the bottom of the 11th and moved up on a Johnny Lee sacrifice bunt. After an intentional walk and a flyout, Felt - who already had three hits in the game - stepped to the plate.
    Felt dribbled a slow-rolling grounder to the left side of the infield. Roof hesitated in his dash to third to shield U-M shortstop Anthony Toth's view of the ball, which rolled under his glove and into shallow left field.
    With MSU coach Jake Boss Jr. frantically waving his arm to send him home, Roof slid into third base. He quickly popped to his feet and resumed running as Wolverines left fielder Kenny Fellows picked up the ball and heaved it toward the plate.
    The throw arrived in time to get Roof as he slid, but it short-hopped catcher Chris Berset and bounced out of his glove. Roof touched home safely and sent the MSU dugout sprawling onto the field to mob him in front of 1,500 fans at McLane Stadium.
    "We've been talking about playing to win and forcing other teams to make plays against us," Boss said. "In a normal situation, I probably wouldn't have sent (Roof) there, especially with where their left fielder was. But I didn't know when we were going to get another chance."

6. MSU 16, Iowa 13 (football)
The other semi-miraculous home win that allowed the Spartans to finish with an overachieving 9-3 regular season.
    “We’re learning to play our best in big-time situations,” said junior linebacker Adam Decker, whose fourth-and-inches stop of Iowa back Shonn Greene turned a potential loss into a wildly celebrated victory. “I don’t think that’s something you naturally have, it’s something you learn over time.”
    The Spartans learned more about themselves Saturday and came up with a Homecoming victory they easily could have squandered. MSU (5-1) has won five straight games and is 2-0 in the Big Ten, both for the first time since 2003.
    Iowa (3-3, 0-2) battled back from deficits of 13-0 and 16-3 with a defense that held Ringer to 91 yards -- and a power offense, led by Greene (30 carries, 157 yards), that bullied the Spartans for much of the second half.
    But the Hawkeyes twice passed up field-goal tries to go for it on fourth-and-short in the fourth quarter, and twice failed. Chris L. Rucker stuffed a short pass for a loss of three on a fourth-and-2 from MSU’s 28.
    Decker blasted Greene for a loss of three with 2:16 left, resulting in a release of frenzied emotion on MSU’s sideline that coach Mark Dantonio called “chaos.”
    Combined with three Iowa turnovers in the first half – two of them deep in MSU territory, one a Rucker pick – and three field goals from red-hot kicker Brett Swenson, it was all just enough for the Spartans to survive.
    “Somehow, we just got it done,” Dantonio said. “I just know that there is something special about this football team. We’ve been able to reach each other a little bit and play through some difficult times.”
    Saturday had its share of those. Head-snapping hits were the norm and resulted in several MSU injuries. Rucker, Otis Wiley and Mark Dell all had to leave the game with various ailments, along with others who limped off but returned.

7. MSU 1, Northwestern 0 (men's soccer)
    This could probably be higher, the narrowest of victories to win a championship in Joe Baum's final regular-season game as head coach. From MSU:
    All of MSU's offensive chances finally paid off in the 55th minute when the Big Ten scoring-leader Doug DeMartin dribbled down the right side and fired the ball on net. Northwestern goalkeeper Misha Rosenthal made the save, but fellow senior Louis Stephens III collected it and knocked it in just past the reach of Rosenthal. The goal was Stephens' fourth of the season.
     MSU's defense hung tough from then on, surrendering just five shots in the final 35 minutes of play. As he has been all season, Steinlage was a force in net for the Green and White, making key saves down the stretch. He made seven saves in the game and has now surrendered just four goals in six Big Ten matches.
    "(Those last few minutes) I was just saying `Please, let's hold on' because I could already feel the excitement," said Baum. "I was just hoping we could just hold on and play some good defense and sure enough, we were able to do it."
    MSU soccer alumni from several eras were on hand to witness the historic win.
    "When I looked up (into the stands) and saw all those past players, it was breathtaking and I'm very, very grateful," Baum said. "It almost feels like an extended family and we preach that you're with us forever, so, to have all these guys come back from all over is really meaningful."

8. MSU 67, Texas 63 (men's basketball)
    HOUSTON – Durrell Summers elevated like few can, snatched the ball out of the air, took a bump from behind and raced toward the Michigan State bench, bellowing the entire way with his right fist raised.
    And Tom Izzo started laughing.
    He got a kick out of Summers’ unbridled exuberance, at the clinching moment of a giant win over No. 5 Texas that the sophomore guard helped deliver.
    Summers, a surprise crunch-time participant, hit a pair of late 3-pointers – including the game winner with 18.6 seconds left – in No. 19 MSU’s 67-63 upset of the Longhorns at Houston’s Toyota Center.
    He also rebounded his own miss and passed to Kalin Lucas for a key late basket, and wrapped it up with that final defensive rebound and two clinching free throws with 0.1 of a second left.
    “It’s just a great feeling, man, a dream for me,” Summers, who scored 14 points off the bench, said of his late flurry.
    “Those are big-time plays,” Izzo said. “He’s a big-time player. … I think he grew up a little bit.”
    As did the Spartans (8-2), who earned a happy holiday break with their best effort of the season.
Less than three weeks after a 35-point loss to No. 1 North Carolina, they got one for the NCAA Tournament resume by executing the defensive game plan perfectly, overcoming atrocious foul shooting and scrapping back from a five-point deficit in the final four minutes.
    And they showed what a difference senior center Goran Suton makes. In his second game back after missing six with a knee injury, Suton had a team-high 18 points in 26 minutes off the bench.

9. Penn State 72, MSU 68 (men's basketball)
     Both MSU-Penn State games were classics last season, but this one was pure drama in the last few minutes.

   

“We’ve got seniors on this team, ain’t got no rings, ain’t got no championships,” MSU senior guard Travis Walton said after the loss and a lengthy team meeting. “Either we’re gonna come together and get a ring, or we’re gonna go away from each other and the same things are (going to happen) that happen every year.”
    MSU led Penn State (17-5, 6-3) by 13 points in the first half, fell victim to a barrage of shots from Penn State sophomore guard Talor Battle (29 points), and trailed 68-56 with 4:14 to play.
    Then the Spartans staged a desperate comeback aided by Penn State free-throw woes. MSU sophomore Kalin Lucas just missed on a tying free throw with 12 seconds left, then a tying jump shot with five seconds left.
    “It felt good coming off my hand, it just missed,” said a dejected Lucas, who led MSU with 23 points, hitting 7 of 21 shots and 8 of 9 from the line.
    “That had nothing to do with the loss, he just could have been a hero,” Izzo said of Lucas’ late misses. “The game was lost from the seven-minute mark of the first half.”
    At that point, MSU led 29-16 and appeared to be in complete control. A 22-8 Penn State run in the half’s final 5:56 made it 38-37 Nittany Lions at the break.
    They just kept rolling from there, shooting 56.3 percent for the game, including 10 of 20 from 3-point range. Some of the shots were of the deep, off-the-backboard variety, but those don’t fall without extreme confidence.
    “If you want to win a championship, if you want to do something great, you’ve got to find a way to stop them from making those types of shots,” Walton said. “Period.”
    ...
    Still, the Spartans had their chances to pull out a dramatic win and avoid the program’s first ever loss to Penn State in East Lansing.
    The Nittany Lions did not have a basket in the final 6:56, and they missed seven of eight foul shots to open the door.
    Summers (nine points) and Chris Allen (11 points) missed consecutive 3-pointers that would have tied the game at 68-68. Allen missed another with MSU down 69-67, but Lucas got the offensive rebound and was fouled with 12 ticks left.
    He split the pair, Penn State’s Andrew Jones split two, then Lucas raced downcourt and missed wide left on a pull-up shot from about 15 feet.
    Jones hit two free throws to seal it with 1.6 seconds left. That made the Nittany Lions 4 of 11 from the line in the final 3:15.

10. MSU 52, Ohio State 46 (women's basketball)
    Brittney Thomas' ACL tear a few days earlier made an upset unlikely for MSU, but the Spartans clawed for the biggest win of Suzy Merchant's tenure -- until a few weeks later when Duke rolled in.

   

"I felt like our kids, as disappointed as they were under the circumstances, believed they could find a way to make it happen," Spartans coach Suzy Merchant said. "It's an effort by everybody to step up and say, 'We can make this happen.' "
    The upset in front of 10,403 screaming fans puts MSU (17-7, 10-3 Big Ten) a half-game behind the first-place Buckeyes (19-4, 10-2) in the conference standings, with the Spartans playing three of their last five regular season games at home.
    "I think we proved to ourselves and everybody else that we've made the statement," junior Allyssa DeHaan said. "Now, we have to carry it over from this game out."
    DeHaan, hobbled by a sore left foot, scored 16 points and swished two critical 3-pointers in the second half. Redshirt freshman Lykendra Johnson had 14 points, 11 rebounds and neutralized high-octane Ohio State point guard Samantha Prahalis with her defense.
    Leading by three with about a minute left, sophomore Kalisha Keane put her own miss back up and in for her only basket of the game. She also had the presence of mind at the other end, after DeHaan corralled a missed shot by the Buckeyes with 37 ticks left, to just hold the ball and waste about 15 seconds off the clock with no Ohio State player pressuring her and no 10-second backcourt violation in the women's rules.


    So ends the reminiscing on this blog. Look for an overall recap in Sunday's LSJ, and next week we'll set the table for all the things we're about to learn about MSU and Big Ten football.

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Joe Rexrode
MSU Sports Reporter
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