Don’t you hate it when the airline loses your luggage? Well Michigan State must’ve lost their legs in baggage claim, because they were dead on their feet in the first ten minutes.
Louisville was faster and straight-up dominated the Spartans early on. The Cardinals looked hungry to avenge their Elite Eight loss at the hands of MSU last season.
Before all the fans were in their seats, the Cardinals had an eight point lead. MSU didn’t hit a field goal until almost nine minutes into the game. The Cards capitalized on State’s fatigue and pressed early and often, forcing 11 first half turnovers.
Denzel Valentine and company finally woke up from their coma 12 minutes into the first half. An 8-0 run cut the Louisville lead to four and brought the crowd back in the game. Valentine put an exclamation point on the first half with an acrobatic lay-in as time expired. State never led in the and trailed by three going into the break.
“They brought the toughness and intensity to us early on and we didn’t like that,” said Valentine. “Our motto is players play and tough players win. We didn’t show that in the first half.”
Izzo must have handed out espresso shots to his team at halftime because they finally looked alive and like the No. 3 team in the nation. The two squads traded punches through the first few minutes, neither team able to gain any ground. A Valentine layup tied the game for the first time with 10 mins to go. Kenny Goins hit a turnaround jumper with 6:35 to go to take the first Spartan lead.
Bryn Forbes put the Spartans on his back in the second half, draining three after three from the corner. After the game, Valentine called him the “best shooter in the nation.” Forbes finished 5-9 from range for 20 points.
With just under five minutes to play, Tum Tum Nairn made the play that turned the tide for MSU. He stole the ball from Trey Lewis and pushed it up the floor, getting it to Valentine who served up an alley-oop to Deyonta Davis. Five-point lead for the Spartans and all the momentum heading into the final four minutes.
Lewis hit a trio of free throws to cut the deficit to two with just under a minute to go. The Spartans responded with a pair of their own from Valentine. The Cardinals were forced to foul and MSU came up clutch at the stripe. Valentine nailed two more to keep the lead at four with 5.7 seconds left, essentially icing the game. MSU survived 71-67. They drilled 12-14 free throws in the second half, quite the departure from last season.
“I was like man, Coach is gonna lose it tomorrow on that film if I miss these,” said Valentine. “I’m not trying to hear that. We wouldn’t have been in that position if I made plays early on in the game, so I figured I had to step up and make those plays to make up for it.”
“White knuckler right down to the end,” said Izzo. “I feel fortunate to win. I almost feel like we stole it, and you got to do that in order to have a great season. I wouldn’t say we didn’t deserve to, because we fought back, but I thought they played awfully well for a long period of time in that game.”
“They gave us their best punch and we took it, but we can’t do that,” said Nairn. “We have to be able to hit first. We fought back and responded and got the win.”
Nairn seemed to have left his shot in California after stroking the ball well in the Wooden Legacy. He was 0-5 from the field and 0-2 from distance.
“I shot the ball with confidence and they just didn’t go in,” said Nairn. “I’m gonna keep shooting.”
Valentine led all scorers with 25 points, making it three out of his last four games dropping at least 25. But he struggled with his shot early, just as the rest of the team did. He was perfect from the charity stripe at 8-8.
Goins was the surprise of the game for MSU. The former walk-on, who is recovering from hernia surgery, grabbed a game-high 13 rebounds in 18 minutes to go along with the clutch jumper late in the game.
“I give a lot of credit to Kenny because he’s a hard working guy,” said Nairn. “Comes in and works hard every day and never complains, he’s humble. But I’m so glad he had a breakout rebounding game this particular game against a lot of giants. It was special to see I’m happy for him.”
Michigan State’s next game is on Saturday against Binghamton. Tip-off at the Breslin Center is scheduled for noon.