Life isn’t fair.
Good doesn’t always triumph over evil, justice isn’t always served and the better team doesn’t always win.
The Spartans learned this lesson first-hand on Sunday afternoon.
A superior Michigan State basketball team fell to the UConn Huskies, 60-54, bringing the careers of three Spartans to a screeching halt in the worst way possible – a loss in the Elite Eight – just one step away from the Final Four.
As the game slipped away in the final 30 seconds, the Spartan Nation could only watch in agony.
Head coach Tom Izzo’s men felt even more anguish, knowing the defeat came to an opponent the Spartans were clearly superior to in terms of talent.
Hondo S. Carpenter, Sr. spoke with several MSU players and coaches after the painful loss in the locker room from the world famous Madison Square Garden in New York City.
Starting out strong is important in any game. Its importance increases tenfold in the NCAA Tournament. Unfortunately for the Spartans, the Huskies tore off a 12-2 run in the first eight minutes.
“If we throw the first punch, we’re probably going to win. If the other team throws the first punch, we’re probably going to lose,” sophomore Denzel Valentine said after the loss. “That’s what happened all year in the times we lost.”
The Spartans mounted a run and stole the lead, but UConn’s fast start was simply too much to overcome.
Senior Keith Appling said as much in an emotional post-game interview with the mob of media members surrounding him.
“We just made too many mistakes early,” Appling said. “We turned the ball over and it just led to easy baskets for them, and from that point on, everything was going their way until we finally made a run. It took so much out of us to make that run, it almost seemed like we just didn’t have enough left to get over the hump.”
Michigan State built up a 9-point lead with 16:34 to play in the contest, but then the wheels fell off.
The Spartans missed six straight shots from the field, committed four fouls and turned the ball over four times in the next six minutes, allowing the Huskies to take back the lead, 35-32 lead.
“We just didn’t take care of the basketball and that’s the thing that got us,” associate head coach Dwayne Stephens said. “We defended them well enough. We had a 9-point lead at one point, but we started turning the ball over again and that got them back in the game.”
The heartbreaker came with 30 seconds remaining, as Appling fouled Shabazz Napier on a three-point attempt. The foul sapped the Spartans’ strength, as Appling went to the bench and Napier went to the charity stripe, where he buried all three shots.
The next 30 seconds ticked away without incident, leaving MSU empty-handed and disappointed.
“If you hold a team to 34% shooting and 22% from the three and out-rebound them, you’d win 99% of your games,” Izzo said. “The turnovers and some of the free throws were tough. We just didn’t seem as sharp mentally as we needed to be. We started out poor, we looked drained.”
The final stat sheet wasn’t pretty in turnovers and free throws. The Spartans finished with 16 turnovers and a mere eight free throws.
MSU’s disappointing performance in these two areas allowed an overachieving UConn team to pass the Spartans.
“We just think we didn’t play well,” assistant coach Dane Fife said. “UConn did what they had to do, we just didn’t play well in certain areas. That’s how we’ve felt we lost the whole year. In certain areas, we didn’t do what we needed to do. It’s no secret that we didn’t play well today.”
In a way, the loss stung even more because of MSU’s poor performance.
While UConn deserves credit for reaching the Elite Eight as a No. 7 seed, the Huskies simply don’t have the talent on their roster that the Spartans possess. Without a doubt, UConn has dangerous playmakers, but has nowhere near the depth and top-to-bottom talent of the Spartans.
“You hate to end it like this because, if we had lost the other night [to Virginia], I would have said we played our best and lost,” Izzo said. “When you lose now – and I give all the credit to UConn, I really mean that, I give [Kevin Ollie] more credit than me, he had them more ready to play than I did – but we didn’t play very well. [UConn] was part of the reason, but you can’t give credit them for some of those turnovers.”
“That’s the toughest because we’re a better team,” Stephens said. “Hats go off to them, they were better today, but we’re a better team than that team we just played today. It’s just a bitter pill to swallow. But in life, you gotta do it sometimes. You gotta take medicine you don’t want.”
This is the type of game that makes the NCAA Tournament so popular. On any given day, a Cinderella team or underdog can post a better performance than the heavy favorite and pull off an upset no one would have predicted.
Unfortunately for the Spartans, they happened to be on the wrong side of things.
“It sucks,” Valentine said. “This was our chance. This team had so much potential and was so good, and to come up short. Give credit to UConn, they played hard, but we beat ourselves.”
Few other sports offer such a tough road to a championship. The NHL, NBA and MLB all feature series play, which allows a team to have a bad day and survive. That’s not the case in college basketball.
“That’s the toughest part,” sophomore Gary Harris said. “Give credit to UConn. They got a great point guard in Napier and [Ryan] Boatright did a great job, he seemed to will their team to victory, but it was a tough one for us today.”
This Spartans team leaves a legacy that won’t be soon forgotten. Michigan State overcame overwhelming obstacles this season and made a deep run in the NCAA Tournament despite facing so many critical injuries earlier in the year.
Only time will heal the deep wound inflicted by this crushing loss. But while the defeat hurts now, nothing can take away from this team’s memorable season amidst all the adversity.