Michigan State probably should’ve been a No. 1 seed. Tom Izzo owns the month of March. Denzel Valentine might be the best player in the country. And the Spartans had their sights set on a national championship.
That’s why Middle Tennessee State’s win on Friday might have been the biggest upset in NCAA tournament history.
Michigan State was stunned in incredible fashion, becoming one of just eight No. 2 seeds to ever fall against a No. 15 seed, in a 90-81 loss in St. Louis, a game in which the Spartans never led.
The underdog Blue Raiders were on absolute fire for much of the game, ending with a 55.9-percent shooting performance. But it wasn’t just that the shots kept falling, it was that Middle Tennessee State had an answer for seemingly every effort that Michigan State made to get on top.
The hot shooting was on display early, with the Raiders starting the game 6-for-6 from the field and 3-for-3 from 3-point range. That resulted in a jaw-dropping 15-2 lead to begin the game. While the Spartans righted their ship after a cold-shooting start, the shots never stopped going in for the Raiders, who went a stunning 8-for-13 from 3-point range over the first 20 minutes, shooting 53.3 percent from the field.
And Middle Tennessee State didn’t slow after halftime, either. Michigan State finally got some production from Bryn Forbes — who was a mere 0-for-2 in the first half — the All-Big Ten Second Team selection hitting four second-half 3-pointers. Forbes and Matt Costello were practically the entire offense for the Spartans, scoring 27 of the team’s first 29 points of the second half. They used an 11-3 run to make it a one-point game with under nine minutes to go, but that’s when the Raiders’ uncanny ability to answer came into play, as the teams traded hoops with Michigan State never able to tie the game or grab the lead. Eron Harris hit a 3 with about four minutes to go to cut it to a three-point game at 77-74, and Colby Wollenman’s pair of free throws made it a one-point game with three and a half minutes left.
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But when the Raiders finally started missing, presenting the Spartans with opportunities, Michigan State missed, too. Wollenman’s free throws were the final points for the Spartans for three minutes, and by then, the Raiders had a seven-point lead which proved insurmountable.
Michigan State shot great, 55.6 percent, almost an identical number to Middle Tennessee State’s scorching performance. The two teams knocked down the exact same number of 3-pointers, 11. Second-chance points, points in the paint and points off turnovers were practically the same for both sides.
The difference was momentum and Middle Tennessee State’s terrific job of preventing Michigan State from grabbing too much. The Raiders stopped any Spartan runs in their tracks, and there certainly were moments of Michigan State uprising. Forbes and Costello were terrific in the second half, and with shots finally falling for Forbes, leads were sliced into on a regular basis. Harris had back-to-back shots that made it a two-point game. But every time Michigan State looked like it was going to restore order to the maddest month of the year, Middle Tennessee State had a response.
Costello led the Spartans with 22 points, Forbes chipping in 14 on four made 3s. Valentine had 13 points, 12 assists and six rebounds, but he also turned the ball over six times, including four times in the second half.
It was a shocking and completely unexpected end to what was supposed to be memorable campaign for Michigan State. The Spartans were ranked in the top 10 for much of the season and looked like championship material at last week’s Big Ten Tournament. They left Indianapolis happy with their conference-tournament championship but clearly more concerned with bigger goals, goals that now they won’t have a chance to achieve.