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."

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Spartans With A Chance to Claim a Title of Their Own

Michigan State has been one of the most successful teams in the NCAA Tournament over the past decade-and-a-half.  Tom Izzo has guided the Spartans to six Final Fours since 1999.  But, when playing against familiar conference foes in the Big Ten Tournament, the story has been different.

Michigan State hadn’t won a semifinal game in the event since 2000, but that drought ended with Saturday’s 65-52 victory over Wisconsin.

“A lot of people always say coach Izzo takes off the Big Ten tournament to get ready for the NCAA Tournament.  That’s such a myth,” said Draymond Green. 

“One thing we have talked about with this group is really focusing in on and trying to get wins, because it’s something that hasn’t been done here (in the Big Ten Tournament) in a long time. And when you talk about leaving a footprint in the sand, it’s just another way to get it done.”

After a slow start that put Wisconsin up 20-9, Michigan State hit the ‘on’ button both offensively and defensively.  The Spartans held Wisconsin without a field goal for the final 10:21 of the first half and for nearly two minutes at the start of the second half, en route to a 28-5 run.  And, Michigan State made the surge with its All-American, Draymond Green, scoring just two points and committing four turnovers.

“There have been times all year when guys haven’t been playing as well, or guys going down with injuries, or guys not playing as much and other guys have stepped up and increased their roles,” said Austin Thorton. 
“That’s what a team is supposed to do and a great job (today) by our guys stepping up and making plays.”

Thorton sparked the Spartans’ streak, hitting three consecutive three-pointers.  He finished the game with 12-points and a career-high four baskets from downtown.

“This team wouldn’t be where it is without Austin,” said Draymond Green.  “Today everybody saw what he was capable of doing.  I started off the game struggling very bad and he hit a few big three’s and got us back in the game and from then on we were all able to pick it up.”

During its run in the first half and early into the second, Michigan State hit 15-of-19 shots after starting 1-9 from the field.

The Badgers used a 13-0 run of their own claw back within six with just over 12-minutes to play, but after struggling for much of the game, Green came alive.  The Big Ten Player of the Year accounted for 13 of the Spartans final 19-points, including ten of his own and an assist on a Keith Appling three-pointer.    

At the same time Green warmed up, Wisconsin went cold.  The Badgers failed to make a field goal for nine minutes after trimming the deficit to a half dozen and were never able to recover.

Wisconsin shot 34-percent from the field for the game.  Jordan Taylor scored 19-points and Ryan Evans had 18, but no other Badger had more than six.  Rob Wilson, who scored 30-points in Wisconsin’s quarterfinal win over Indiana, was held to just one basket.

“It was a complete team effort,” said Green of Michigan State’s defensive performance.  “You have to give this game to our guards because they did a great job offensively carry this team and also did a great job defensively of stopping those guards from shooting those threes.”

Green finished with his conference best 19th double-double, 14-points and 16-rebounds, as well as five assists. 
Derrick Nix kept the Spartans in the game early scoring the team’s first seven points.  He and Brandon Wood both ended with nine.

Keith Appling continued his solid play in Indianapolis.  After a 12-point, six assists performance in the quarterfinals against Iowa, the sophomore point guard added 13-points, five assists, and only one turnover against the Badgers.

“It’s tournament time.  I have to take care of the ball and make plays for my team and that’s what I did all night long,” he said.  “When the opportunity was given, I was able to get a couple baskets.”

The Spartans are in the Big Ten Tournament title game for the first time since 2000 when they captured their second consecutive crown and then went on to win the National Championship.

Last weekend, Michigan State lost to Ohio State on senior day in East Lansing and was forced to share the Big Ten regular season title with the Buckeyes and Michigan Wolverines. 

Sunday is a chance for redemption.  The Spartans have no interest in sharing anymore and expect to leave Indianapolis with a title they can call their own.

“I was ecstatic about the win. It’s been eleven years, I think, since we have been in the championship game and I’m going to try to enjoy this,“ said Izzo.  “I can’t tell you how excited I am to be in the championship game, no matter who we play.  We could play the Pacers, I don’t care.”

Sunday, March 4, 2012

From Europe to Indy: Purdue's Title a True Journey

The Purdue women’s basketball team’s quest for a Big Ten title ended Sunday as they hoped, with a win in the conference’s tournament championship game.  But, it started months ago halfway around the world.
The Boilermakers beat 24th-ranked Nebraska, 74-70, in double overtime to win their 8th tournament crown in 15 seasons.  It was just as they pictured when they envisioned the moment last summer thousands of miles away.
“We sat down by a river in Europe, I still remember the moment, and we talked about goals and this was one of our goals,” said guard Courtney Moses.  “We are living the dream right now.”
The Boilermakers dream was set during their eleven day European tour in August when they played games in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Austria.   It came true because of three days of complete team basketball. 
In their Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal win over Michigan State, Brittany Rayburn carried the Boilers with 29-points.  The next night, Moses’ 21 points and Antionette Howard’s career-high 13 rebounds sparked them past top-seeded Penn State, with help from a last second game winning shot by Rayburn. 
Sunday, it seemed like every Boilermaker did their part to secure the trophy. 
“We definitely had some issues with some of their perimeter kids,” said Nebraska head coach Connie Yori.  “We did a good job on Moses and Rayburn, but they’ve got good players, KK (Houser) is a good player.  (Chantel) Poston is a good player.  Howard is a good player.  They’ve got good players.  They’ve got a lot of kids who can score the ball.”
Poston had a double-double (11pts, 10 rebs), as well as five blocks and hit a critical late free throw with three seconds left to give Purdue a two possession lead.  Moses scored eight.  Alex Guyton scored seven. Chelsea Jones had two key blocks.  Sam Ostarello grabbed ten rebounds.  The Boilermakers’ performance defined team play.
“There were never moments in the game where we were like ‘we are going to lose.’ We were always, always thinking positive, always going to win that game,” said Ostarello.
Purdue’s best game came on the biggest stage and KK Houser shined brightest.  She had her finest 40-minutes of the weekend against Nebraska with 19-points and five steals.  Most importantly, the redshirt sophomore point guard had no turnovers, after eight in the first two games.
“I just came in to today thinking that, we have six seniors that I have to play for, we deserve this,” said Houser.  “I just played hard and thought nothing of my turnovers.”
Houser’s performance earned her a spot on the All-Tournament Team.  Her teammate, and one of the seniors she played so hard for, Brittany Rayburn, also made the All-Tournament team and earned the Most Valuable Player award.
Without the play of the Attica native, it’s unlikely the Boilermakers would have even been in Sunday’s title game.   Like she’s done throughout her illustrious career at Purdue, Rayburn made critical plays at critical moments in the team’s wins over Michigan State and Penn State.
Against Nebraska she struggled, scoring nine points, which is six below her season average, and made just one field goal.  But, Rayburn points to that as one of the reason this Purdue team is special.  When one player has an off night, someone else is there to step up.
“We have a very, very deep team.  Anybody on any day can go off,” she said.  “We’re all very unselfish people.  When somebody is on, we get it back to them.  KK (Houser) was on tonight.  It was great we needed it.  And I think it obviously shows what a great all around team that we have.”
The team first mentality was planted sitting near a river in Europe, but blossomed as the season progressed. 
Whether it was a season ending injury to their captain Drey Mingo, tough back-to-back losses to Notre Dame and Central Michigan in December, or overtime losses to Nebraska and Michigan State in February, this group of Boilermakers stuck together and stayed focused on one of their primary goals set overseas in August.
“We were in Europe and coach (Sharon Versyp) sat us down right before we were about to leave.  We were all in a circle and we went down and said what we wanted to accomplish by each milestone and right now we’ve accomplished the Big Ten Tournament, and that was one of our goals. I am so glad we got to it,” said sophomore guard Dee Dee Williams. 
“It’s been a long road.  We’ve had sicknesses.  We’ve had injuries.  This, that. I feel like this team has just been through so much adversity.  I feel like that has really helped us get to where we are now.  We stuck together and we are here and we did it.”
From a river in Europe to a title in Indianapolis, the Boilermakers are living their dream and are now champions.