Monday, March 12, 2012

Spartans Display Champion Resilience, Hunger in Big Ten Tournament Title Run


Failure is a part of sports and every other part of life.  No athlete or person is immune from it.  But, Champions rise.  They learn from failure. Champions use setbacks as fuel to get better and grow stronger.

The Michigan State Spartans are Champions.  The Big Ten Tournament trophy they were holding after Sunday's 68-64 win over Ohio State is a tangible symbol of that, but the Spartans champion persona runs much deeper than a shiny, heavy mixture of metal and glass.

"Everyone buying in and everyone understanding that our goal was to win three games in three days.  We haven't been able to do that in a long time," said Austin Thorton.  "It's a special group of guys."

A week ago, the Spartans weren't feeling so special.  In fact, they felt miserable.

Michigan State squandered a chance to claim the outright Big Ten regular season title when Ohio State spoiled senior day in East Lansing with a 72-70 win.  During that game, the Spartans surrendered a double-digit lead and lost standout freshman Branden Dawson for the season with a torn ACL.  The most painful part of loss was the fact that Michigan State had to share the regular season crown with two of its fiercest rivals, the Buckeyes and Michigan Wolverines.

"That's something that at the end of the season you will look back on and still be upset about," said Draymond Green.

But, instead of dwelling on everything that went wrong during the first Sunday of March, Michigan State took a look in the mirror and decided to take care of business.

They started the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis with a convincing 17 point win over a pesky Iowa team trying to get a signature win to pad their NCAA Tournament resume.  The following night, the Spartans used a 28-5 run late in the first half and early in the second half to knock off Wisconsin for the third time this season.

The win over the Badgers gave Michigan State a rare berth to the tournament championship game and a chance to redeem themselves against the team that put a heavy damper on their season.

"To know that you are playing for something should motivate everybody, players and coaches, to know that you are still playing for a championship," said Derrick Nix.  "If that doesn't motivate you, you shouldn't be playing basketball."

It was easy to tell that both the Spartans and Buckeyes were playing for more than a title.  They were playing for pride, bragging rights, and a number one seed in the NCAA Tournament.

The Spartans reveled in the challenge.

"Man, this game was so physical," said Green. "Coach told us at halftime, 'fellas, this game is a war and we don't lose wars' and we came out and proved that."

The Spartans and Buckeyes exchanged blows throughout the game.  There were 16 lead changes.  Ohio State's largest advantage came with 14:06 to play.  The Buckeyes racked off a 16-6 run capped by a DeShaun Thomas three pointer after Keith Appling missed a layup.  That gave Ohio State a 52-45 edge.  After Thomas' triple, Green went to the ground in pain and was forced to go to the bench.

With their All-American leader sidelined momentarily with an injury and Ohio State in full control of momentum, Michigan State was looking at a championship slip through its fingers for the second weekend in a row.

But, the Spartans kept their poise and answered with a 10-0 run of their own.  Brandon Wood found Nix for a dunk.  Then Wood, who scored a season-high 21 points, connected on back-to-back three pointers and freshman Brandon Kearney made a layup.

"Like last Sunday, we made the plays, we made the shots.  Today, they did," said Ohio State coach Thad Matta.  "It was a back-and-forth battle.  That 10-0 run they had on us when we got up by seven was a big key."

The Spartans extended their lead to five, their largest advantage of the day.  But, Ohio State didn't bow out.  They pushed back and drew within two with about a-minute-and-a-half to play.  The Buckeyes missed several shots that would have tied the game or given them the lead.  That left the door open for Michigan State to deliver the knockout blow.

Draymond Green, the Big Ten Player of the Year, had an awful game by his standards. He was just 4-15 from the field with 12 points.  But, with the game and title on the line, Michigan State's captain hit the biggest shot of the season.  He took a pass from Appling and drilled a three that put the Spartans ahead 67-62.

"Coach always tells me, 'you're my horse.' He always tells me, 'you're my horse and I am riding with you. Take those shots when you've got them in the big moments,' " said Green.

"Keith (Appling), what he won't get credit for, the pass was right in the shooters pocket.  I didn't have to adjust the ball not one inch, not one centimeter. So, I just caught it and fired it.  I knew once I let it go it was going in."

Ohio State's Aaron Craft would make it a one possession game with a layup, but Thorton knocked down one of two free throws to seal the game and secure Michigan State's first Big Ten Tournament title since the turn of the century.

"We wanted some vindication for the way (OSU) came into our place and beat us in the situation which it was and we were able to get them today.  It feels great," said Thorton.

Over the course of a week, the Spartans have felt brutal heartache and triumph.  They have experienced both highs and lows.  It's how they have managed all scenarios that resulted in them standing, and in Adreian Payne's case - dancing, atop the podium at Bankers Life Fieldhouse basking in confetti.

"That's what we all come here to do is hang banners and get rings," said Wood.  "Today was another opportunity to put a footprint in the program and that's what we did."

The Spartans also have a number one seed in the West Regional to go with the new banner and rings.  It's a reward for showing resiliency and determination, especially over the past seven days.  But, Michigan State is anything but content with simply being the best in the Big Ten Conference, they want the whole country to know they are champions.

"We're not done yet. We're not satisfied with a co-championship and we're not satisfied with the Big Ten Championship," said Green.  "This year has been -- this program has been based around hanging banners. And there's no banner better than the National Championship banner and we haven't got that feeling yet, so that's what we're pushing for."

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