Michigan State takes blue-collar team to another Final Four

Leave it to Michigan State sophomore forward Xavier Tillman to mess up Duke’s scouting report as well as the plans of its three celebrated freshmen, most notably Zion Williamson, to finish their one-and-done college careers in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament’s Final Four.

And leave it to Tillman’s teammate, fifth-year senior Kenny Goins, to go off-script from his own team’s play call to knock down the go-ahead 3-pointer in Michigan State’s 68-67 victory that sent the Spartans to Minneapolis for Saturday’s national semifinals.

If junior guard Cassius Winston is Michigan State’s unquestioned leader, not to mention the Big Ten’s Player of the Year and the NCAA tournament’s East Region Most Valuable Player, Tillman and Goins, along with senior guard Matt McQuaid, are its heart.

And this heart bleeds blue-collar.

It’s only fitting, given who coaches the Spartans.

Headed to his eighth Final Four, Hall of Fame coach Tom Izzo has spent a career churning out teams that reflect his upbringing in a place called Iron Mountain on what locals call “the U.P.” — Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

But this year’s team, which overcame injuries to junior wing Joshua Langford and junior center Nick Ward Jr. to win a share of the Big Ten regular-season title and then win the conference tournament, is much likes its bulldog of a coach.

“I say we might not be as physically tough as some teams I've had, but I think mentally we might be tougher than any team I've had,” Izzo said after the Spartans earned their first Final Four trip since 2015.

Langford, who hasn’t played since suffering an ankle injury in late December, has watched the Spartans evolve into a team that has won 14 of its past 15 games, including nine straight, since losing three straight in late January and early February.

Along with the loss of Langford, the team’s second-leading scorer when he was hurt, Michigan State had to play several games without Ward, who broke his hand Feb. 17 and didn’t return until playing eight minutes in the Big Ten title game in Chicago.

Even in their recent string of victories, the Spartans have not been unscathed.

In Michigan State’s win over Michigan in the Big Ten tournament final in Chicago — the third straight win over its archrival in a three-week stretch — key frontcourt reserve Kyle Ahrens sustained a serious ankle injury.

“We’ve seen the lion roar and we’ve roared back,” Langford said, sitting in the joyous dressing room at Capital One Arena in Washington after Sunday’s game. “This is what we’ve been doing the whole year, we’ve been facing everything head on.”

Said McQuaid: “It hasn’t been a next-man-up mentality, it’s play for the man who goes down. I feel this group is really connected. We hold each other accountable. We love each other and I think you can see that on the court.”

There’s a much different feel about this year’s Michigan State team than the past two seasons, when the Spartans were built around five-star talents such as Miles Bridges, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Langford.

After losing in the first round in 2015 — the year before Bridges, Ward, Langford and Winston were part of Izzo’s highest-rated recruiting class — the Spartans lost in the second round the past two years.

“We just play as a team, and we stick to the game plan more this year,” said Ward, who showed signs in the second half against Duke of being the inside presence the Spartans lacked when he was out.

It was evident during the win over the more celebrated and more talented Blue Devils. Down 30-21 late in the first half, Michigan State closed the half on a 13-0 run and then closed the game by overcoming a 66-63 deficit with 1:44 remaining.

“We’ve been getting punched in the mouth all year. We didn’t panic. We responded, and that’s what you’ve got to do,” McQuaid said.

If much of the two comebacks were orchestrated by Winston, who finished the Elite Eight game with 20 points, 10 assists and just one turnover while playing all 40 minutes, it also had to do with Tillman.

Matched against the otherworldly Williamson, Tillman more than held his own by tying his season and career high of 19 points, as well as getting nine rebounds.

And, ultimately, it had to do with Goins.

Goins passed up several scholarship offers from mid-majors, as well as from Harvard and Yale, to walk on at Michigan State. Though Izzo had drawn up his team’s final shot to go to Winston, Goins broke it off when he saw Williamson giving him room to shoot a 3-pointer.

It came after Williamson had blocked Goins’ previous attempt from nearly the same spot a couple of minutes before.

“When you see him block your shot when it’s like 12 feet in the air, you’ve got to kind of pump fake a couple of ’em to keep him honest,” Goins said. “In that one, I was kind of measuring up before I got the pass how far away he was and which direction he was going. As soon as it hit my hands, I was like, ‘This one is going up.’ ”

Asked if he had ever hit a bigger shot, Goins said: “Not even close. Not a chance.”

Goins said that the trust Winston had in finding him for a potential game-winning 3-pointer epitomized not only the selflessness of the Michigan State point guard, but the feeling that permeates the team’s locker room.

“This is the closest team I’ll probably ever be on,” Goins said. “Everyone is pulling for each other, I'm pulling for every one of the 16 guys to my left and my right. It’s been our calling card all year, play for everyone, play for our brothers who have fallen.”

Asked if players such as Goins and McQuaid epitomize the mindset of this year’s team, Winston said: “Yeah, definitely. Hard-working. nothing’s given, everything’s earned. That is what those guys are to a T and that’s what this team is.”

FINAL FOUR

At U.S. Bank Stadium, Minneapolis

National Semifinals

Saturday

Virginia (33-3) vs. Auburn (30-9), 6:09 p.m.

Michigan State (32-6) vs. Texas Tech (30-6), 40 minutes after first game

TV: CBS

Championship: Monday, 9 p.m.

don.markus@baltsun.com

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