When the battle was mercifully over, Mike the Tiger was declared the winner.
As it turned out, that was LSU’s only victory of the night. The Tigers’ interim coach, Tony Benford, had to call his first timeout before his team scored. If this had been a rock fight, LSU would have been bloodied before it was two minutes old. The Spartans led 8-0 before Benford asked for time, and although LSU got within four a couple of times early in the second half, there never was much doubt that Michigan State would be advancing to the Elite Eight for the 10th time in Tom Izzo’s coaching career.
The final was 80-63. How confident was Izzo? He never called a timeout. Not once.
When the Tigers (28-7) got the margin into single digits, Michigan State had answers. LSU cut what had been a 17-point first-half margin to 45-41 on a Kavell Bigby-Williams dunk with 16:43 left in the game, and it looked like Izzo needed a timeout.
Except he didn’t think so. Freshman Gabe Brown, who had a career night with 15 points, hit a three-pointer to extend the lead to 48-41. Point guard Cassius Winston (17 points, eight assists) hit a jumper. Then Aaron Henry, the freshman who became famous for 15 minutes a week ago because Izzo yelled at him during the Spartans’ victory over Bradley, hit a three-pointer. The margin was back to 56-41, and it was Benford who had to call time.
Henry finished with 20 points, which, if nothing else, proved that he responded well to Izzo’s “tough love.”
“I’ll be forever grateful that [Izzo] stayed on me,” Henry said. “I know right from wrong, and I know coaching. I knew what he was trying to do, and I know how much he cares. Tonight, the basket looked huge to me. I’m glad it was like that.”
LSU, which got to this point even though Coach Will Wade is on administrative leave after allegedly being heard on an FBI wiretap talking about a “strong offer” made to current freshman Javonte Smart, didn’t fold.
Point guard Tremont Waters, who made the shot against Maryland last Saturday that got the Tigers here, was relentless, scoring 23 points, and the Tigers, after being hammered on the boards in the first half, finally got some offensive rebounds and converted them to stay in the game.
LSU got the margin into single digits one last time, getting to within 70-61 with 3:06 left, and again it looked as if Izzo needed a timeout. “I thought about it,” he said. “But I honestly thought we were going to need them at the end.”
That was about the only thing he was wrong about all night. Matt McQuaid, the senior who averages 9.9 points, hadn’t scored to that point, nailed to the bench for much of the game with foul trouble. But he caught a pass on the right wing and drained a three-pointer to up the margin to 12. Then, after an aesthetically impressive Bigby-Williams dunk, McQuaid shot-faked, drove from the right, hit a layup and was fouled. His free throw with 1:32 made it 76-63 and ensured that Izzo would take all his timeouts to the locker room.
“I didn’t honestly think we would win this game like this,” Izzo said. “They’re a good team, a bunch of junkyard dogs. But I’m really proud of my guys, especially the freshmen. They were great tonight.”
Henry has been a starter on and off all season and has steadily improved. It was Brown, though, who was the revelation Friday, hitting one key shot after another — none bigger than the three after LSU cut the margin to four.
“I’m not sure he’s had 15 points all season,” Izzo said — an exaggeration since Brown had 57 points on the year coming in. “This team has been very good with guys stepping in and stepping up when we’ve needed them to.”
Shooting guard Josh Langford, who was averaging 15 points, went down for the season in December with a foot injury. Center Nick Ward broke a hand Feb. 17 and came back at the tail end of the regular season. He landed awkwardly on his left hand with seven minutes left Friday, but Izzo said he didn’t think — he hoped — the injury wasn’t serious.
Ward will be needed Sunday in the region final against top-seeded Duke. With six days to prepare for LSU, Izzo had his team primed for the matchup.
He had signs put up all over the locker room and in the team’s hotel rooms. One said, “cut out/rebound.” Another said “turnovers.”
Under Izzo, Michigan State’s trademark always has been its rebounding. The Spartans (31-6) lived up to Izzo’s demands almost perfectly in the first half. They had 10 offensive rebounds — equaling LSU’s total — and only four turnovers, and those two numbers keyed the 40-28 lead.
LSU did better in the second half, but Izzo was more than happy with the way his team performed.
“We knew they’d make runs at us,” Winston said. “That’s the nature of the tournament. You have to be ready to answer. Tonight we were.” He shrugged. “That’s why we’re still playing, I guess.”
Michigan State last reached the Elite Eight in 2015 and went from there to the Final Four. The past two years, when they failed to reach the second weekend, have been disappointing for Izzo, who won the national title in 2000 and will be trying to reach his eighth Final Four on Sunday.
“They did a good job doing what we asked them to do,” he said as he walked out of his postgame news conference. He smiled.
“Now we’ve got to come up with something for Sunday. If we play Duke, maybe I’ll put up signs in the hotel that say, ‘Tackle Zion.’ ”
Clearly, he was already thinking ahead. He would take an hour or so to enjoy this win. The preparation for Duke would begin soon enough. Clearly, Izzo wasn’t worried about which mascot Sparty would face come Sunday.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.
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