Dienhart: Unfinished business for Michigan State

And just like that, Michigan State’s season is over. Finished. Kaput. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. But, in some ways, this seems like a fitting end to season that forever will be marked by what-ifs.

It was the season of unfinished business.

Go back to Selection Sunday. Way back then, the Spartans were the darlings of the day, the pick of many to advance to the Final Four—and some thought Michigan State would win it all despite a No. 4 seeding that everyone on the planet thought was too low.

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Heck, the President of the United States himself picked Tom Izzo’s Spartans to cut down the nets in Arlington, Texas, at the Final Four.

But, UConn—a No. 7 seed playing in front of a partisan crowd in Madison Square Garden–trashed that idea with a 60-54 win in the Elite Eight in the East Regional final.

This was a bizarre game, marked by stark contrasts. UConn raced to a 12-2 lead. But the Spartans battled back, ending the opening half on a 23-9 run to take a 25-21 lead at the half.

Gary Harris led the way, hitting 5-of-7 shots and scoring 12 points by intermission. Harris hit 2-of-4 three-pointers in the first half, as the Spartans connected on 6-of-15 from beyond the arc to fuel MSU in the opening 20 minutes.

Yep, Michigan State looked to be in control. And that mojo carried into the second half, as the Spartans held a 32-23 lead at the 16:34 mark. But that’s when the Huskies took over.

Perhaps no play epitomized this game more so than when at the 9:12 mark, Ryan Boatright tipped the ball from an inattentive Denzel Valentine, raced down court and was fouled by Valentine. Boatright hit both freebies to give UConn a 41-36 lead. The Huskies never looked back, icing this game by hitting 21-of-22 free throws.

The Spartans were hurt by 16 turnovers. And Keith Appling’s continued struggles certainly didn’t help. The senior hit 1-of-3 shots for two points with four turnovers and five fouls. It seemed fitting Appling picked up his final foul on a three-point attempt by Shabazz Napier, who hit all three freebies to push a 53-51 lead to 56-51.

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

It was a perfect punctuation to a perfectly awful NCAA tournament for Appling, who hit 4-of-12 shots (0-of-3 from 3-point range and 2-of-3 from the charity stripe) for 10 points in four games. The senior point man also had 12 assists with nine turnovers.

Izzo was 6-1 in Elite Eight games entering today’s tilt with UConn, making Final Four appearances in 1999, 2000, 2001, 2005, 2009 and 2010. Prior to this defeat, the only time Izzo had lost an Elite Eight was in 2003, when Michigan State fell to Texas. The Spartans beat Florida to win the 2000 title, the last time the Big Ten has won the national championship.

The loss kills the Big Ten’s chance to join the Big East as the only league ever to advance three schools to the Final Four. The Big East did it in 1985.

The Spartans got to this point by beating No. 13 Delaware, No. 12 Harvard and No. 1 Virginia. They won six in a row coming into the UConn tilt. That’s all over. And so is Izzo’s streak of having every senior who played for him play in a Final Four.

Payne and Dawson carried the Spartans in the Big Dance. Payne scored a career-high 41 points vs. Delaware. He also had 12 vs. Harvard and 16 vs. Virginia, hitting 19-of-37 shots with 17 rebounds entering today’s game. Payne has been a monster from the free-throw line, hitting 24-of-25 attempts. He also has drained 7-of-13 three-pointers.

Dawson’s hot streak began in the Big Ten tourney, when the junior earned MOP honors in helping propel Michigan State to the championship after an uneven regular season that saw the Spartans go 12-6 in Big Ten action. He seemed like a man possessed after missing nine games with a broken hand from Jan. 25-Feb. 23. Dawson has been especially hot coming into the UConn game, notching a career-high 26 points vs. Harvard. He then tallied 24 against Virginia. So, in the last two games, Dawson hit 21-of-31 shots for 50 points. He also has added 19 rebounds. In all, Dawson had hit 25-of-38 shots with 27 rebounds and 60 points.

Each tried their best on this day, as Payne had 13 points and nine rebounds and Dawson finished with five points and eight boards. Even Harris came to life. He finished with a team-high 22 points. The last time out, he got into foul trouble vs. Virginia and finished with six points on 2-of-5 shooting. Prior to that, Harris had 10 points vs. Delaware and 18 vs. Harvard.

Still, none of it was enough to overcome UConn on this day, punctuating the end of Michigan State season that began was a No. 2 ranking in the preseason AP poll and 18-1 start, was sidetracked by injuries, got back on line with a run to the Big Ten tourney title, and ended bitterly today in the Elite Eight.

About Tom Dienhart BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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