NEW YORK — The running mantra for Michigan State has been “when healthy … ”
When healthy, they can beat anyone in the country. When healthy, they are the most-talented team in the country. When healthy, they have more depth than any other team in America.
Now that they are healthy? Well, that’s all coming into focus. Since getting back to full strength, the Spartans (29-8) have looked every bit the team that was once top-ranked in the country. Michigan State’s latest victim was top-seeded Virginia (30-7), which fell 61-59 in the East Regional semifinal at Madison Square Garden on Friday night.
“Give Virginia a lot of credit,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “Tony Bennett has done an incredible job the last few years. His team played so hard and tough. He said it, and I agree, that’s how basketball should be played.
“We beat one helluva team tonight.”
Though at times fourth-seeded Michigan State played some of its worst offense of the season, Friday’s game provided the best example of why the Spartans have been the trendy pick to win a national championship.
In of game of offensive attrition, forward Branden Dawson kept them afloat. Before the start of the season, Dawson was thought of as talented, but the fourth offensive option.
Keith Appling, Gary Harris and Adreian Payne were the ones who got most of the plays run their way.
But on Friday, Appling hit one field goal, Harris scored six points and Payne, though he finished with 16 points, struggled to get his touches through a long stretch at the start of the second half.
Dawson literally vaulted the Spartans from a potential double-digit loss to a Sunday date with Connecticut, when the teams will play to go to the Final Four.
Appling, Payne and Dawson all have missed time with injuries.
“That didn’t stop me from coming in and working hard,” Dawson said. “Being out for those nine games, I told myself that my team needs me, that I needed to step up and be a man. That’s what I did.”
Cavaliers coach Bennett summed up what Dawson brings: “He’s a matchup problem because he’s so explosive, so athletic. He doesn’t need a lot of shots.
“I can see why without him, they were good. With him, they’re really good.”
Is there a better example of depth? It had to have been maddening for Bennett that Michigan State could beat his Cavaliers, statistically the best defensive team in the country, with its fourth offensive option.
Through the first five minutes of the second half that stout defense made it seem as if it were playing with 10 players on the floor. On nearly every possession by the Spartans, Virginia was able to swat away passes.
But the Spartans stayed poised and kept the game close, even though they didn’t score their first field goal of the second half until 13:37 was left. The basket came from — surprise, surprise — Dawson.
“It was very important for us to stay poised,” Dawson said. “We didn’t start pointing fingers.
“We kept our poise and just didn’t give up.”