Niyo: Izzo, Spartans lose cool, reach an agonizing end in OT

On a night where so much of what once was possible seemed plausible…

Niyo: Izzo, Spartans lose cool, reach an agonizing end in OT 1
Niyo: Izzo, Spartans lose cool, reach an agonizing end in OT 2

The longest season for Michigan State ended with the longest night.

And when it was all but over, the clock stopped once more, a final awkward pause in a season full of them for Tom Izzo and the Spartans.

This time, it was almost taunting Aaron Henry and his forlorn teammates, though. Trailing by six with the final seconds ticking off the clock, Henry tried to make a pass to freshman point guard A.J. Hoggard for a final three-point heave. Instead, a UCLA defender got a hand on it and knocked the ball out of bounds.

That left Henry, the Spartans’ do-it-all leader, to make one final play, a half-hearted inbound pass, before dropping his head in dismay and slowly walking off the court. His season was over, and likely his college career, too, after Michigan State’s 86-80 overtime loss to UCLA in the First Four of the NCAA Tournament — a game that began on a Thursday and finally ended in the early-morning hours of Friday.

And on a night where so much of what once was possible seemed plausible again, this was a brutal reminder: Some things simply aren’t meant to be.

“It’s tough to lose a game the way we lost it, I really mean that,” Izzo said later, speaking at a postgame news conference that was over before the rest of the NCAA Tournament began. “We really played extremely, extremely hard. But we just didn’t make the plays that mattered.”

And that’s all that matters at this time of year, which is something Izzo understands as well as anyone.

For Izzo, this was his first-ever overtime loss in the NCAA Tournament, another cruel twist at the end of a long and winding road that saw the Spartans find a way to extend the program’s remarkable 23-season postseason streak. And then find a way to end it abruptly, almost gratuitously.

Unappealing display

They did it with a mess of missed shots and miscues. Airballed shot attempts at one end and botched box-outs on free throws at the other. Unforced turnovers on crtical possessions, and the sort of tightness we didn’t see in those big wins over Illinois and Ohio State and Michigan that got them here.

Against a UCLA team that’s trying to mimic what Izzo has built at Michigan State, the Spartans simply fell to pieces in this one, blowing a comfortable lead late and then looking wholly uncomfortable in the closing minutes and in overtime.

“I mean, we had the game won,” Izzo said, shaking his head.

And then just like that, they lost it, much like they did with this season, one that started with uneasy promise and then quickly came unraveled as the Spartans dealt with COVID-19 cases and poor guard play, fitful lineup changes and growing fatigue. 

But yet here they were Thursday night, right where they needed to be, and maybe where they deserved to be, as it turned out. The Spartans rallied to extend their season with a late-season push, one that brought Izzo to tears on more than one occasion. His players, too.

And when the ball was tipped, and March Madness really was happening, after a year in exile and what felt like an eternity at times for these Spartans, this was how it’s supposed to look.

Well, maybe not this, exactly. Thursday’s made-for-TV marquee First Four game tipped off well after 10 p.m., in a mostly empty Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Ind., where the home team was wearing green and white and the visitors were dressed in blue and gold.

At least the statue out front didn’t look out of place. John Wooden was standing watch as his Bruins hit the court. And Gene Keady was in the building where the court bears his name. The same court where Michigan State’s season was left for dead only a month ago. 

But this? For much of Thursday’s game, it was more like the Michigan State we’re used to seeing in the month of March, whether it was Izzo and Gabe Brown lighting into each other on the way off the court at halftime — shades of Izzo and Henry at the start of MSU’s 2019 Final Four run — or the way the Spartans looked refreshed after a week off, making shots and even pushing the pace in transition.

Moving the rock

And then there was that sequence late in the first half, where the ball moved in ways we simply didn’t see from Izzo’s team this season. Not often enough, anyway.

An entry pass from Brown to Julius Marble in the post. A kickout to Joey Hauser at the top of the key. And then two rapid-fire passes around the horn from Hauser to Rocket Watts to Henry, alone in the corner directly in from the of the UCLA bench.

Henry, a one-man show on so many nights for this team, capped the play with a rainbow three-pointer that splashed through the net. At the other end of the court, the Michigan State bench was celebrating, and a couple minutes later the lead would balloon to 14 points.

“I thought we moved the ball so well and played really good basketball,” Izzo said.

And he wasn’t wrong. It’s just that defensively it was another story, as UCLA’s guards continually broke down Michigan State’s defense on the perimeter. The Spartans spent a week studying the Bruins’ tendencies, and then seemed to forget what they’d learned when it came time for the final exam.

Right was left, left was right. And whether it was the tired legs, or Joshua Langford’s tender ankle, or some blown defensive switches like the one that had Izzo fuming at the halftime buzzer, the answers were all wrong in the end.

Izzo called it a “cluster of things” that cost the Spartans this game, and that was putting it kindly, quite frankly. What it was, really, was a total collapse, as Michigan State made just one field goal in the final 2:59 of regulation and the entire 5-minute overtime period, while committing four turnovers.

“That’s the way the season went,” Izzo said. “You just can’t make the same mistakes over and over and over again, and that falls on me.”

If he sounded resigned to his fate, that’s because he was. When you lose in the middle of March, the season’s over, just like that. That’s true whether you’re a No. 2 seed losing to Middle Tennessee State, or a No. 11 seed getting plucked in a play-in game.

Still, when you’re a departing senior like Langford, it’s even more jarring, though the Spartans’ captain — the embodiment of this team’s perseverance in so many ways after two injury-plagued years — still found the words to frame it in a better light.

“I told the guys (in the locker room), I said, ‘Don’t let this time be in vain,'” Langford said. “Take the things that you’ve learned, and that we’ve all learned, and let’s use them for the rest of our life, whether you’ll be on the team next year or whether you’ll be like me getting ready to move on. 

“I think this season has really taught me a lot about perseverance, and just how to keep fighting even when you don’t feel like it, even when you just think you can’t go anymore.”

This season’s gone now, but Langford’s right. After everything the Spartans put into it, the way this night ended shouldn’t be all they remember.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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