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March 23, 2012

And that'll do it

Would they have revealed these fears in the wake of a dramatic comeback and theft of a game to reach the Elite Eight? I don't know, but Tom Izzo and Draymond Green both said the same thing tonight: They saw this coming.

    “Nobody’s crazy," Green said. "We know the energy level that this team has had and we know what we’ve been through. The energy level just wasn’t there, and it’s nobody’s fault. It wasn’t like we weren’t still leading the way we’ve been leading and it wasn’t like coach wasn’t still coaching the way he’s been coaching. Or that guys weren’t trying. It just wasn’t there. I think everybody just knew. We had the feeling. We fought through it, we had a chance to get the game back in our favor...”

    But it didn't happen, with a late free-throw putback a fitting way to close the door on a night that saw the Spartans finish an expectations-exceeding season with a basketball-admirer-offending performance. Bad turnovers, bad shots, too much penetration for Peyton Siva -- and yes, not nearly enough energy. And there's no question, Louisville had a lot to do with that. The Cardinals stayed ahead in the first half with, among other things, some 3-pointers from guys who should never take them. But Siva started living in the lane in the second half, Chane Behanan may have played Green as well as anyone has all season, Gorgui Dieng turned back Nix and Payne, the Cards won on the glass and the press finally started to assert itself.

    "You know what our press does a lot of times? It just wears people out," said Rick Pitino, who improved to 10-0 in the Sweet 16 and 1-1 against Izzo. "We didn't really want to trap them. We wanted to run and jump to get to the legs. And for us to have Draymond bring the ball up was great. We said just turn them, just turn them, just turn them, because then he wouldn't have as much energy as he would other times. Certain people we try to create steals or traps or rotate. Tonight we just tried to get into our zone, wear them out and neutralize the backboard. Because this is a team that's plus eight (on the boards). And our guys, we felt we could win."

    And they deserved to win. And now we get some Pitino-Donovan on Saturday. And just like that, the Spartans are done. Izzo, like Green, said he had a bad feeling. He said the walk-through for this game was eerily not similar to the walk-through before the 2009 Midwest Regional final. As you may recall, Izzo said he knew MSU would win that game after he watched the Spartans go through it. Today, he wasn't feeling so good. He sensed the same lack of energy that Green sensed. But he also acknowledged that this Louisville team, with this defense, is different than anything he's seen.

    For once, MSU's schedule did not provide fodder for preparation.

    “It’s a hard thing to simulate," Izzo said. "That was, I think, our biggest problem. ... That was a new team for me. We haven’t played anybody who brought that kind of pressure in a zone.”

    And MSU wasn't able to get a good look at Louisville's athleticism in that defense -- those football players Izzo mentioned earlier in the week may have helped. And the Branden Dawson loss certainly was felt in this game. But it's quite simple. Louisville was better and this MSU team could not afford a night like this against a good team. So that's it. The end of a memorable MSU season. And reminders of how tough it is to win in this tournament -- the best sporting event there is -- and that there are no absolute rules in it. An Izzo No. 1 seed has gone down before the Final Four, and an opponent has given him something he'd never quite experienced.

    Like I said earlier, Keith Appling seemed to take this harder than anyone, on a night that saw him struggle. Green handled it all matter-of-factly, giving Behanan some encouraging words about his future, talking at length about how good next season's MSU team can be -- and thanking this one.

   "Like we told the guys in the locker room, and our coaching staff, thanks for a great year," Green said of words he and Austin Thornton gave.  "They couldn't have given us more than they gave us, and just from where we came from from the beginning of the year, no one thought we were going to be anything. And for all us guys, including our coaching staff and our managers, our support staff, everybody rallied around us like the way they did, it was great. And we couldn't have asked for a better year. We could have asked for a better ending, but the year couldn't get any better."



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Joe Rexrode
MSU Sports Reporter

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