NEW YORK – They remember the beginning and so, when it over, after Virginia’s season came to an agonizing end, at least seniors Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell could appreciate how far the program had come.
Michigan State’s 61-59 victory in the Sweet 16 at Madison Square Garden on Friday night put an abrupt halt to what had been a dream season for the Cavaliers, who finished 30-7, matched the program record for wins, finished first in the ACC during the regular season and won the school’s first conference tournament title in 38 years.
None of that, however, eased the pain of watching the No. 4 seed Spartans skip off the court with a victory. Virginia, the No. 1 seed in the East Region, finally ran into a program that believes in its way of doing things as much as it does.
And so when sophomore Justin Anderson brought thousands of orange-clad Cavaliers fans to their feet after a 3-pointer with 1:49 to play to tie the score at 51, they could only shake their heads when 6-foot-10 Spartans center Adreian Payne answered at the other end. What kind of team was this?
“They’re a different team than we’ve seen because they stick to what they do no matter what,” Anderson said. “But they’re very disciplined like us, they want to get a good shot every time down. They played very confident, probably the most confident team we’ve played all year. That’s the word that separates them.”
Virginia had too much pride to let that stunning shot break its will. A late 3-pointer by Malcolm Brogdon cut the lead to one and the heart still beat. But Michigan State senior Gary Harris finished the Cavaliers with a free throw and then a smart miss that left no time for anything but Anderson’s desperation heave.
“It seemed like anything that we would do, or any time we got something rolling, Michigan State could counter with a big bucket or big play,” Harris said. “But that’s what great teams do, great players do. And they have a good mix of both.”
Four years and 5,000 miles from Madison Square Garden, Virginia coach Tony Bennett remembered his two primary seniors and their baptism under fire at the Maui Invitational, when Washington drubbed his young team, 106-63 on Nov. 23, 2010.
Michigan State was in Maui that week, too, at the height of its power after reaching its sixth Final Four in 12 years the season before. Two of its key seniors, Payne, who hit the night’s biggest shot, and senior point guard Keith Appling, played in that tournament as reserves. As Bennett watched the Spartans take the floor on Friday night, he knew his program had finally arrived.
“I didn’t say anything to our players. But I thought, interesting – here we are,” Bennett said. “They were already at that level. But now we’re scratching and knocking on that door.”
They just couldn’t knock it down quite yet. Virginia showed some nerves early and fell behind by 10 points, 23-13. But just when it appeared the game was headed in a bad direction, the Cavaliers stunned Michigan State with a 12-0 run. The Garden was roaring. But it was never going to be that easy.
Even when Virginia three times stretched its lead to four points in the second half, the last time with 11:41 to go, it could push its lead no further. In just over two minutes the Spartans were ahead 43-40, a cold-blooded 3-pointer by junior guard Travis Trice in transition leaving Anderson sputtering in admiration.
It wasn’t the last time. The Cavaliers fell behind by seven points, 51-44, and appeared beaten after a rushed 3-pointer by freshman London Perrantes gave the ball back to Michigan State. But Virginia, too, was hard to kill. A 7-0 run capped by Anderson’s thrilling 3-pointer from the left wing tied it again at 51. They couldn’t know then the answer Payne had in store for them at the other end.
“I said go toe-to-toe. I told you they may be the best team that you’ve played,” Bennett said. “But you know what? You might be the one of the best teams they’ve played if you play your way. We talked about being assertive, bold and courageous and I think we did that.”
Bennett didn’t mention something else he said, but Harris did afterward. He told his players if they won this game, if they found a way to break through against a perennial power like the Spartans, then they would make it to the Final Four. Instead, Michigan State will face Connecticut on Sunday afternoon for that right. And with five sophomores and a freshman playing key minutes, the Cavaliers will look to a promising future, even if that will be without Harris and Mitchell.