Michigan State Defeats Connecticut, 82-73, Advances to Title Game
Sunday, April 5, 2009
DETROIT, April 4 -- Michigan State guard Kalin Lucas's grandmother, Mae Sturdivant, lives just a few minutes from Ford Field, the site of Saturday night's national semifinals. Lucas lived with Sturdivant for a period of his childhood, and as a tribute to the city in which he was raised, Lucas requested an alteration to the pregame introductions.
All season, Lucas had been announced as hailing from Sterling Heights, Mich., which technically is true. His parents lived there, and he spent time with them as child, as well. But much like his teammates, Lucas sensed in the days leading up to the Final Four that this city -- his city -- needed to feel a deeper connection to something positive, something hopeful.
And so after being announced as a native of Detroit, Lucas led the Spartans to an 82-73 win over Connecticut in front of an NCAA record 72,456 fans, most of whom were clad in green and white. Michigan State advanced to the national title game for the first time since winning the crown in 2000, and Lucas, who tallied a game-high 21 points, played a major role.
"I do know some people who have had hard times, who have been laid off of their jobs or whatever. It is hard times in Detroit," Lucas said. "Today, I just wanted to represent my home town of Detroit."
For the Spartans (31-6), victory provided further escape for a state whose morale has been bludgeoned by a decrepit local economy and double-digit unemployment rates. That Michigan State could advance to a Final Four held here, just 92 miles from its campus in East Lansing, was viewed as a source of regional respite.
Most of those in attendance during the first of Saturday night's national semifinal games were decidedly in favor of a Spartans win, for the hope that it would provide of better days to come, if nothing else.
"I think everybody's having hard times," Michigan State guard Travis Walton said. "Rich people losing their money, poor people ain't getting no money. I think everybody's having a hard time in this town, but we came out and we played hard. When you're in this type of atmosphere you want to play for yourself and your team, but you also want to play for your city and your state."
Afterward, Spartans Coach Tom Izzo lauded Walton for his defensive effort. Walton matched up against Connecticut guard A.J. Price for most of the night, and though Price tallied 15 points, he made just 5 of 20 shots from the field.
It was thought that Connecticut (31-5) would possess an imposing size advantage down low in the form of 7-foot-3 center Hasheem Thabeet. The Big East defensive player of the year, Thabeet ranked second in the nation in blocked shots per game and figured to provide a significant matchup problem for Michigan State, just as he had provided matchup problems for opposing teams all season.
But Thabeet did not become engaged in Connecticut's offense until late in the first half, and though he finished with 17 points, his presence did not provide nearly the edge the Huskies were expecting. Connecticut, a No. 1 seed, and Michigan State, a No. 2 seed, fought to a 42-42 rebounding draw, but the Spartans were much more effective in turning their defensive rebounds into fast-break attacks. Michigan State outscored the Huskies in transition, 22-10.
"We kind of wore them into the ground," Izzo said. "We wanted to keep running, and that put a lot of pressure on" Lucas.
Lucas's sidekick Saturday was a player whom Izzo had been waiting to emerge. Forward Raymar Morgan suffered through a bout of mononucleosis earlier in the season and broke his nose during last week's Midwest Region semifinals. And though his play -- even when he was healthy -- had been inconsistent, Izzo knew the Spartans would struggle against an athletic Connecticut squad without a solid performance from Morgan.