Bodies were flying all over, emotions were running high, the Izzone was getting restless. This was supposed to be an impressive victory to show off to the 2000 National Championship team. Instead it was a dogfight. Florida held a one-point lead with 7:16 to play. With emotions running so high for the Spartans, there was no way they were going to lose.
“We weren’t hitting shots tonight so it was a dogfight, we had to really battle,” said Mark Clark Jr. “I think where they were kind of lacking where we had was strength and that showed on the boards.”
Matt Costello knocked down a jumper to regain the lead, then Bryn Forbes buried a three to take a four-point edge with six minutes left. The Gators’ Devin Robinson sunk a jumper on the very next possession to silence the crowd. That about summed up the game flow.
Two straight stops for MSU led to a Marvin Clark Jr. tip in to extend the advantage to six with 150 seconds remaining. Casey Hill took the ball in transition after a Forbes miss and scored to keep the lead at four just under a minute left. But a pair of free throws by Valentine would ice the game as MSU survived the Gator scare 58-52.
“Florida came in here and they were on a mission to try to play as physical and upbeat as they can and they did a good job of that,” said Denzel Valentine. “It was a low scoring game, we didn’t do our best offensively, but at the end of the day you have to find ways to win and that’s what we did tonight.”
The first half was even more of a defensive battle. Florida turned up the pressure and forced nine first half turnovers for nine points. Both teams struggled to shoot the rock as well, combining to shoot 2-20 from distance.
“I’m not so sure Mo [Peterson] would have missed some of those wide open shots, but it was a knock-down, drag-out, very physical game,” said Coach Izzo.
Florida big man John Egbunu picked up his fourth foul in the first three minutes of the second half, sidelining him for most of the game. He was the biggest player on the court in the few minutes he managed to play. He eventually fouled out without making a single basket.
“We’re a different team when he’s out there,” said Florida head coach Mike White. “It’s just disappointing, and I wish he would have gotten the opportunity to play.”
Valentine led all scorers with 17 points, but struggled to find his rhythm. He shot a paltry 3-11 from 3-point land and 5-17 overall. But his free throws late in the game helped seal the victory for his Spartans.
“‘Zel still had 17 tonight but that’s not the normal ‘Zel that we see every day,” said Clark, who tallied five points and six rebounds. “For our team to be able to bounce back and everybody come in and give something, I think that shows a lot. Especially if we’re not shooting the ball well I think that shows a lot that we’re able to tough it out, play defense and rebound and still get a win.”
Izzo called Forbes his “star of the game,” despite shooting just 1-7 from beyond the arc. He finished with 12 points and added a season-high six rebounds.
“He missed every good shot he took, and I thought he took all good shots. The job he did in tracking down loose balls and playing hard and going and getting rebounds and things we’ve been pushing on him, really, really proud of Bryn.”
The 2000 National Championship team was honored at halftime, with nearly all members in attendance. They defeated Florida 89-76.
“It was definitely a blessing having them in the building and in the locker room before the game,” said Tum Tum Nairn. “There were a lot of emotions flowing through us before the game. I just think it was a special atmosphere tonight.”
The Spartans get a well-deserved break now with a week off before a trip to Northeastern.
“This is gonna be a good break for us now,” said Izzo. “I thought Zel looked really worn and a couple of the other guys did, but it’s been a really good three of four weeks. Now we get a break for finals.”