Keys to Michigan State Spartans' run to NCAA Final Four won't be found on scoresheet

Raymar Morgan, right, driving on Steven Pearl, got into position to draw a foul in the final seconds.

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Raymar Morgan, right, driving on Steven Pearl, got into position to draw a foul in the final seconds.

ST. LOUIS — Years from now, you will be able to look at the box score and reconstruct the details of the game.

The shots and the rebounds. The turnovers and the blocks. You will see that Michigan State played slightly better than Tennessee in the final three minutes of a 70-69 victory Sunday, and you will be able to identify the critical shots and the killer misses.

And still, you will have no idea how Michigan State made it to another Final Four.

Because this story is incomplete without snapshots and explanations. This group cannot be described without signposts and an insider's peek at the moments and emotions that changed a team's outlook.

Look at the Spartans two weeks ago.

They have been embarrassed by Minnesota in their Big Ten tournament opener.

Guard Durrell Summers is pulled from the starting lineup because coach Tom Izzo is unhappy with his effort, and players are beginning to snipe at each other.

So a players-only meeting is held, and grievances are aired.

"We told Durrell everything he needed to hear," sophomore forward Draymond Green said. "We told him, 'We know you can score, but we need you to play defense. It doesn't help if you score two points, and you let your man score three.' As you can see, he's done a lot better job."

Since then, Summers says he has been more focused. More locked in. Summers was 8-of-10 from the field against Tennessee, including a huge 3-pointer when the score was tied with 2:47 remaining.

And a player who averaged barely 10 points during the regular season is now averaging 20 in the NCAA Tournament. He was named the Midwest Region's most outstanding player.

Look at the point guard on the verge of tears Sunday.

Korie Lucious missed a free throw with 28 seconds remaining, and it's beginning to look as if that mistake may cost Michigan State dearly. Tennessee has tied the score with 11 seconds remaining and still has Scotty Hopson at the free-throw line with one more shot.

And so Lucious carries this agonizing guilt with him into a sideline huddle during a timeout. That's when junior guard Chris Allen throws his arm around Lucious' shoulders and promises him that his miss won't matter. That someone will have his back.

"That's the chemistry thing. You know all of my cliches all year? You better be a good teammate? That's what it's all about," Izzo said. "When you get that, then that's special."

Look at the want-to-be hero giving up the ball again.

Green is nothing if not confident. He never shuts up, and he routinely argues with Izzo about being a more focal point of the offense. Yet last week, he had the ball in the final seconds against Maryland and passed it to Lucious who hit the winning 3 as time expired.

Now he is telling Izzo to set up an isolation play for him, and he will break down the defense and hit a winner.

"I don't think he felt quite comfortable with that," Green said with a grin. "So he drew up another play."

With the score tied at 69 and a handful of seconds on the clock, Green does end up with the ball and is driving to the hoop when he spots forward Raymar Morgan waving his arms and makes the pass. Morgan was fouled, and his free throw with 1.8 seconds remaining was the winner.

Until that moment, Tennessee had been 27-0 when leading with five minutes remaining in a game.

So now the Spartans have a three-point win in the opening round against New Mexico State, and the win against Maryland at the buzzer. The closest thing they had to a romp was a seven-point win against Northern Iowa, and that game was tied with less than three minutes remaining.

They are 4-0 in the tournament and have outscored opponents by a grand total of 13 points. Duke outscored its tournament opponents by 64 points. West Virginia by 56. Heck, even Butler outscored teams by 31 points.

In other words, this is not a dominant team. But it has, in the end, learned how to win.

"We knew we had to scrape and scrap," Izzo said. "We knew it wasn't going to be easy. And it wasn't."

Finally, look at the celebration on the Edward Jones Dome court late Sunday afternoon.

The traditional cutting of the net has begun and Summers has climbed up the ladder to snip off a piece for captain Kalin Lucas, who went down in the Maryland game with an Achilles' tendon rupture. This is when freshman Derrick Nix suggests that Lucas deserves better.

So Green asks stadium workers to move the ladder out from underneath the hoop. And then a group of Michigan State players take Lucas in their arms and lift him above their heads so he can reach the hoop and complete the cutting of the net.

"He carried us a lot the last three years," Allen said. "Now, we had a chance to carry him."

All the way to the Final Four.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Keys to Michigan State Spartans' run to NCAA Final Four won't be found on scoresheet 03/28/10 [Last modified: Sunday, March 28, 2010 11:56pm]

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