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Michigan State is headed to another Sweet 16 after bouncing Marquette

Michigan State forward Malik Hall celebrates one of Marquette's 16 turnovers during an NCAA tournament second-round game in Columbus, Ohio. (Michael Conroy/AP)
6 min

COLUMBUS, Ohio — They held a grand slog Sunday evening at Nationwide Arena, amid a month when slogs often do tilt toward Michigan State. When this one did likewise, Columbus had deepened its nutty role as a sort of graveyard of champions.

Where Big Ten regular season and tournament champion Purdue had left for home after a freaky Friday night against wee Fairleigh Dickinson, Big East regular season and tournament champion Marquette followed it out of the bracket with a bruise of a loss that became only its third in 23 games since the ancient history of Dec. 20. The 69-60 outcome sent Coach Tom Izzo to his 15th Sweet 16 amid 25 straight tournament berths.

“I think we beat a damn good team,” the 68-year-old said of a Marquette team that came to rest at 29-7 as Izzo’s fourth-place Spartans from the Big Ten smiled on to New York to play Kansas State in an East Region semifinal Thursday. It’s an uneven 21-12 No. 7 seed that tiptoed out of its conference tournament after an undistinguished quarterfinal yet left a fantastic No. 2 seed empty because the Spartans proved rugged enough to pull through some bleak numbers, such as their 2-for-16 three-point shooting.

“It’s a strange stat sheet,” Marquette Coach Shaka Smart said, “because we made 11 threes and they made two. But, I mean, we only made nine two-point shots the whole game. That’s probably a record low for us. We’re normally very good finishing when we get in the paint. Michigan State did a really good job of help defense. They did a great job with their hands.”

That ruggedness combined with the 23 points wrung from Tyson Walker’s fearless guard play to pull out of a 42-40 deficit, nudge ahead 48-42 and 52-45, then bolt back out ahead one last time in the final three minutes and change after Marquette closed within 56-55. That last bolt came from Walker’s gutsy drive through the left for a scoop-in with 3:06 left, A.J. Hoggard’s drive through the right for a non-artful but true little bank shot, Walker’s 15-footer after a timeout with 1:16 left and some other little matters that end up big, such as Malik Hall’s he-man offensive rebound and two blocked shots from Mady Sissoko.

All the while, Walker kept his turnover total at a lovely round zero.

“I think this whole year I’ve been doing a good job just not taking chances with my passes, staying under control,” the senior said. “And down the stretch, [teammate Joey Hauser], everybody just said to give me the ball at key times. And I made big plays.”

So while Marquette kept inching toward the winners, the winners kept inching away. The path to that ending howled with Michigan State’s traditional defense, which might have had something to do with a remarkable sequence midway through the second half in which six consecutive Marquette possessions resulted in the basketball not touching the rim or the backboard: five turnovers and one easily swatted blocked shot.

Tyler Kolek tossed an intercepted pass with 11:38 left.

Chase Ross lost a ball at 10:44.

Ross lost another ball at 10:13.

David Joplin drove right into a Carson Cooper block at 9:46.

Joplin traveled at 9:15.

Kolek backed into a defender, slipped and fumbled at 8:31.

“We scouted them hard,” Hauser said, soon adding: “We knew our matchups. We knew personnel. We knew what they were running.”

“They drove in the middle, and they’ve been able to finish,” Izzo said. “And they didn’t finish, and sometimes they fumbled. And so I guess we get a little credit for that.”

“Offensively, just not one of our best games,” Smart said.

Finally, one of Michigan State’s three-point shots went in and lifted the team to its 2 for 16, from Hauser with 4:23 left for a 56-51 lead, but then Marquette’s Kam Jones went ahead and rained one in 10 seconds later to make it 56-54. The slog wore on, and the Spartans mastered it more. “I am so proud of the guys for withstanding that,” Izzo said, “because that was — I’ve been in Elite Eight games, I’ve been in the Final Four, [and] that was as intense and tough a game as I’ve been in my career.”

Kolek, the Big East player of the year formerly of George Mason, wriggled and struggled and suffered to 2-for-8 shooting and six turnovers to exceed his five assists, four fouls and seven points.

“It wasn’t an issue at all,” Kolek said after a question about his thumb injury. “There’s no excuses for those [six turnovers]. Just trying to be out there for my team and command the game. And I didn’t do that today.”

He said, “I thought they took us out of their rhythm.”

From the get-go, Michigan State’s energy seemed riper than Marquette’s, and by the 12:24 mark of the first half, the score stood 18-5, the rebounds stood 8-1, the assists stood 3-0 and the shots stood 7 for 11 next to 1 for 8.

From there, the higher seed played its basketball uphill, with halting and maybe exhausting progress. The score got to 31-22 late in the first half when Marquette plied the only statistical advantage it had: three-point shooting. The unlikely Ben Gold, a 6-foot-11 Kiwi reserve with a robust three-point percentage of 29, sent a hopeless line drive launch from the right, but when that missed, Gold was undeterred. He tried again from the left edge and swished that 2:41 before halftime.

After almost two minutes of back-and-forth yielded nothing, Olivier-Maxence Prosper stood pretty close to where Gold stood, and when his three rained down, Marquette had nudged within 31-28.

Michigan State took a timeout, and the fairly large Marquette minority of the crowd didn’t.

When the Spartans’ Jaden Akins made a confident drive through the left for a one-handed 10-footer, that gave Michigan State a bit of room and the 33-28 lead it would carry to halftime. By then, the big green clamp had descended upon Kolek, who had one point and two assists, 12 points and five assists below his per-game averages.

That would begin to tell of the slog, and the end of the slog found Michigan State atop it. It found Smart saying, “As sweet as it feels to advance, it’s even worse to lose,” while Izzo said something that seemed to echo down the ages of the excellent Michigan State slogs: “I roll with guys with hearts that big.”