- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 5, 2009

DETROIT | Connecticut looked like a good bet to thrive in an up-tempo Final Four game filled with fast breaks against a team from the typically plodding Big Ten.

Michigan State scoffed at such conventional wisdom.

The Spartans unleashed a deep rotation to erode the Huskies, dispatching Jim Calhoun’s team 82-73 before a partisan crowd of 72,456 at Ford Field to reach the national title game for the first time since 2000.

Kalin Lucas scored 21 points and Raymar Morgan put a season’s worth of struggles behind him with 18 points, nine rebounds and five steals for Michigan State (31-6), which will meet North Carolina in Monday’s NCAA tournament final.

“We thought we had depth over them, and that’s why we wanted to run,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “I thought we could run if we rebounded well.”

And so they did, evenly splitting the battle of the boards with the gargantuan Huskies (31-5). Double-double machine Hasheem Thabeet was held in check with 17 points, six rebounds and two blocks as Calhoun suffered his first Final Four loss in three appearances.

While Calhoun mostly relied on seven players, Izzo substituted liberally. Five Spartans reserves were on the floor less than six minutes into the game, and there was never doubt Michigan State was fresh even as several players stumbled into foul trouble.

It ensured Michigan State dictated a pace much to its liking, and it was in the transition game the Spartans especially thrived. Even as Connecticut hung close for more than 30 minutes, Izzo’s bunch exploited a 33-7 bench edge to push past the Huskies.

“We are a running-type team,” guard Travis Walton said. “That’s what Coach wants to do. Early on, we were running and getting out and scoring a lot of points. You get into conference play, and they take away your strengths. We ran the court today and we opened up on our breaks.”

The re-emergence of Morgan made it happen. While Lucas, the Big Ten player of the year, and Goran Suton carried the Spartans through the Midwest Region, Izzo continued to believe Morgan had a good game or two in him after the junior stumbled through a season littered with injury and illness.

Calhoun, too, feared the possibility that Morgan - a player he coveted on the recruiting trail - might re-emerge for the Spartans.

“He, to me, was the difference maker tonight,” Calhoun said.

It was worth wondering just who that masked man was. Morgan, who had suffered a broken nose a little more than a week earlier, was fitted with a plastic mask different than the one he wore in the regional final and proceeded to unfurl one of his best games of the season.

“Raymar, keep wearing the mask, please,” Lucas pleaded.

Izzo might be wise to take the same approach with Morgan, a quieter player on a team brimming with personalities. While Lucas or Walton might be eager to crack a joke, Morgan generally takes a more taciturn approach.

With time running short on the season, Izzo adopted a different angle heading into the Spartans’ first Final Four game since 2005.

“Today the button was ‘Ray, I need you,’ ” Izzo said. “It just came down to old-fashioned begging. It worked pretty good.”

It worked out much like Michigan State’s regional final rout of Louisville, building a modest halftime lead before taking control after the break. This time, though, the Spartans needed a little longer to put away their opponent.

Michigan State held a 58-54 lead when Draymond Green scored four straight points to double the edge. A few minutes later, sophomore Durrell Summers deposited a one-handed slam over the Huskies’ Stanley Robinson to give the Spartans their first double-digit lead.

In less than a minute, though, Connecticut uncorked a 9-1 run capped by a Robinson dunk to close within 74-71. But Summers completed a three-point play with a minute left and grabbed a defensive rebound on Connecticut’s next time down the floor. The Huskies never got within a possession again.

It left the Spartans on the doorstep of their third national title, Izzo’s second and the first for a current crew eager to finish the job in front of a crowd less than 100 miles from the school’s East Lansing campus. Included in that group is Morgan, whose personal disappointment is fading fast with Michigan State within a victory of a championship.

“If we win it, I would have to say so,” Morgan said. “Everything would be erased. It’s a great feeling that we got here, but it’s a business trip and we still have one more game here.”

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