Tom Dienhart, Senior Writer, March 29, 2014

Thank goodness for Michigan State big men Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson. Without that dynamic duo, Michigan State would have been sent packing tonight.

But the Spartan tandem led the way in an emotional 61-59 win vs. No. 1 Virginia that advances Michigan State to the Elite Eight to play No. 7 UConn with a spot in the Final Four on the line.

[ MORE: Michigan State tops Virginia in Sweet 16 thriller ]

Dawson and Payne saved their best for last, excelling in crunch time on a night when few other MSU players stepped up. Keith Appling had two points. Gary Harris had six. Forget it. This night belong to the big boys, Payne and Dawson.

With a seven-point lead gone and the game tied at 51, Michigan State faced a huge possession. Payne stepped up and drained a big three-pointer with 1:31 left. MSU never trailed again. On the Spartans? next possession, Payne lobbed a pass to Dawson, who slammed it home. Next, Payne drained two free throws.

It was more proof of who the big stars are on this Michigan State team. And proof of who is going to have to carry the load if MSU wants to win it all.

It also was further evidence of Payne?s greatness, as the senior wasn?t going to let his season end. Not yet, not in New York, not in the Sweet 16. You wonder if Payne would have been Big Ten Player of the Year if not for dealing with a bad foot. Regardless, the Spartans? dream lives.

Credit a bumpy regular season. Michigan State has had to deal with adversity most of the 2013-14 campaign. So, this battle with Virginia was nothing compared to what the Spartans have had to cope with this season, as injuries threatened to derail this promising campaign.

Payne dealt with a foot issue. Keith Appling battled a cranky wrist. Dawson broke a hand. And on it went, as the Spartans floundered after starting 18-1 and rising to No. 3 in the nation. From there, Michigan State struggled, going 5-7 in its final 12 regular-season games before coming together to win the Big Ten tourney. That moment in Indianapolis seemed to galvanize this team, as the Spartans have rolled past No. 13 Delaware, No. 12 Harvard and now No. 1 Virginia. This team is a case study in perseverance and steely will.

The Spartans earned a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tourney. And most felt Michigan State was under-seeded. So far, that notion has proven true. But there was a time tonight when it looked like the Spartans? season of promise would be waded up and thrown away.

Michigan State led early, 21-11. But Virginia battled back with a 12-0 run, as the Spartans clung to a 31-27 edge at the half. Dawson was the dominant player in the opening 20 minutes with 11 points and five rebounds. Dawson continued his dominance in the second half, finishing with a game-high 24 points and 10 boards after notching a career-high 26 vs. Harvard with nine rebounds the last time out. Dawson has hit 21-of-31 shots for 50 points with 19 rebounds the last two games. Simply Sensational.

Payne also finished with sparkling numbers with 16 points, five boards and those oh-so-big moments in the game?s dying minutes.

This was a terrific Virginia team, whose defense is tops in the nation, as the Cavs allow 55 points per game. This is a Virginia squad that won the ACC regular-season title for the first time since 1981 and the ACC tourney crown for the first time since 1976. This was a No. 1 seeded Cavaliers squad. But, Tony Bennett's team goes home after making its first Sweet 16 since 1995.

Michigan State moves on, aiming for the Big Ten?s first national title since the Spartans won it all in 2000. And MSU can thank its big guys.

About Tom Dienhart senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men's basketball for and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at, 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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