WORCESTER, Mass., March 20 -- Michigan State was not in an easy position Sunday afternoon, playing the villain to the lovable Vermont Catamounts in front of a gold-and-green-clad crowd at DCU Center.
But after the fifth-seeded Spartans won, 72-61, ending the 13th seed's Cinderella run in the second round of the NCAA tournament, Michigan State junior center Paul Davis wanted to remind people that the Catamounts weren't the only team that had something to play for.
Michigan State's Kelvin Torbert celebrates during his team's win over Vermont.
(Winslow Townson - AP)
"What we're playing for right now are these two guys here [seniors Kelvin Torbert and Alan Anderson], coach, and the other three seniors we have," said Davis, as Anderson threw his arm around him and smiled. "A lot of people talked about Vermont's seniors, but we've got seniors too that have gone through a lot of stuff. This team fights for those guys first, and that's what's going to drive us for however far it takes us."
For now, it's the round of 16. Michigan State (24-6) will meet top-seeded Duke on Friday in the Austin Region semifinals. It is the Spartans' sixth trip to the round of 16 in the past eight years; only the Blue Devils can make the same claim.
Vermont (25-7) won its first-ever NCAA tournament game Friday, upsetting Syracuse, and the Catamounts were trying to extend the season and careers of longtime coach Tom Brennan (who announced last year that this season would be his last) and senior standouts Taylor Coppenrath and T.J. Sorrentine.
"I'm glad it's over only because I thought the emotions of the game, with Tom Brennan's situation and the whole state of Vermont and the nation pulling for them, would be tough to overcome," Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo said. "I said [Saturday] that if I wasn't playing against them, I'd be pulling for them. But I'm proud of our guys."
Vermont stayed close for the first 17 minutes, but the Spartans ended the first half with an 8-0 run and went into the break with a 35-28 lead. Michigan State was never really threatened in the second half, as it shot nearly 60 percent (13 for 22) during the final 20 minutes. Junior guard Maurice Ager led Michigan State with 19 points. Torbert added 14, and Davis had 11 points and 14 rebounds.
The Spartans wore down the Catamounts with their depth and speed. Michigan State had nine players go for 10 minutes or more. Vermont, meantime, essentially relied on its starting five.
"They made it tough on everybody," said Sorrentine, who made 6 of 15 three-point shots and scored 26 points. "They picked up full-court, they try to wear you down and they bring new guys in. . . . It seemed like they were always fresh."
The Catamounts struggled offensively, shooting just 31percent. Senior forward Germain Mopa Njila, who made 9 of 10 shots and scored 20 points against Syracuse, missed all six shots he took and finished with zero points. Coppenrath watched as shot after shot rolled in and out of the basket; he made only 5 of 23 shots and finished with 16 points. He had 14 rebounds -- 10 on the offensive end. The Spartans often doubled-teamed the three-time America East player of the year.
"I got a few good looks early on, but they definitely played tough and were physical," Coppenrath said. "I think I did get worn down a bit near the end."
So the Spartans' seniors will get to play for another week, and Sorrentine and Coppenrath -- each of whom finished his career with more than 2,000 points -- will not. Brennan's tenure of 19 seasons at Vermont ended with a 264-276 record.
"This has been the greatest ride I could've ever hoped for," Brennan said. "You know you live in a very special place when your realities outweigh your dreams. That's where I am right now. My realities outweigh my dreams, and you thank God for that every day. It ended badly, but it didn't end sadly."