Saturday, March 22, 2008
Michigan State's brand of basketball is about more than simply beating people up.
When the game was on the line, Drew Neitzel and Kalin Lucas were Exhibits 1 and 1A.
The Michigan State guards put on a late shooting-and-ballhandling display to help the fifth-seeded Spartans pull away from Pittsburgh for a 65-54 victory Saturday night in the South Regional.
With Neitzel hitting from long range and Lucas driving for layups, the senior and freshman combined for 21 of their team's final 25 points to help the Michigan State (27-8) win a battle of the bullies - a rough-and-tumble game between two Rust Belt teams who brought their show to the Rocky Mountains.
"I just wanted to be aggressive," Neitzel said. "That's what this team needs from me. Coach has been preaching that."
Neitzel led the Spartans with 21 points, and Lucas finished with 19.
Levance Fields had 19 points for fourth-seeded Pitt (27-10), which had won six straight.
With his team leading by one, Neitzel scored Michigan State's next eight points - including an amazing shake-and-bake move to get a sliver of shooting room between himself and Ronald Ramon - to give the Spartans a five-point lead with 4 minutes left.
Moments after Neitzel's skein, Lucas drove to the basket for a layup, then the two combined when Neitzel picked up a loose ball and fed it ahead to Lucas for an uncontested layup - one of the very few easy scores in this hotly contested game - for a 59-52 lead.
On the next possession, as if to prove these guys really do make their living playing the brutish defense Tom Izzo's teams are known for, the guards combined on the final blow. Neitzel reached in to redirect Fields - who found himself slamming directly into Lucas. The ref called a charge and, cruelly and almost appropriately, the play ended with Fields on the ground writhing in pain.
Pitt lost the ball on offensive fouls four times down the stretch.
"Lucas did a great job getting position," Fields said. "He got the call. It could have gone either way, but he did a good job on defense."
The 11-point margin wasn't indicative of how close this game was for a long time.
Pitt trailed 40-30 with 15 minutes left, but went on a 14-2 run to take a lead.
"We were up two with the ball," coach Jamie Dixon said. "Had a couple good looks. Couldn't knock 'em down."
Instead, Lucas followed with a three-point play to put the Spartans back ahead. Then, Neitzel went off with his eight straight points to help Izzo's team start pulling away.
Neitzel struggled in MSU's first-round win over Temple, shooting 2-for-11, but said after practice Friday that he shot well and wouldn't let one bad game get him down.
His line in this one: 6-for-13 from the field, but 5-for-8 from 3-point range. He also had four rebounds and four assists, and Michigan State made the regional semis for the seventh time in 11 seasons.
The Spartans will play the winner of Sunday's game between Memphis and Mississippi State next week in Houston.
"I'm jacked for the guys," Izzo said. "When you push guys so hard, sometimes you kind of feel sorry for them. Thank God I didn't let that get to me too much, because this is what it takes."
The Panthers, meanwhile, watched a nice season and a string in which they were considered among the hottest teams in the country come to a sudden end. It wasn't for lack of effort.
Pitt shot 2-for-17 from 3-point range and 32 percent overall, and got the number that high only because it warmed up toward the end. The fight from 10 down in the second half was impressive, as was the effort by Fields, who penetrated, made a couple of jumpers when he was smothered and put together a gritty effort, typical of what he's been doing since returning from a broken foot about seven weeks ago.
Sam Young finished with 15 points and four blocked shots for the Panthers. DeJuan Blair had 10 points and four blocks, as well.
"It's tough," Fields said. "Obviously, we were on a roll. But all along, we knew it didn't mean anything, because any time in this tournament, if you don't do the right things, you would be eliminated."
Goran Suton kept Michigan State in it early. Heeding Izzo's pleas to stay tough and consistent, he bodied up with Pitt's big men to finish with 14 points and nine rebounds.
The game was, as advertised, a slugfest.
The first takedown came at 1:17 of the first round - make that half - when Michigan State's Raymar Morgan swung Keith Benjamin to the floor. No foul was called.
They grappled and banged throughout, though it never got too out of control.
And what people will remember most was the fantastic guard play from the Spartans - the factor that swung this game late, and something that sometimes gets overlooked with all the talk of their toughness.
"He's huge," Morgan said of Neitzel, the team's star. "His heart is unbelievable. For him to step up and knock down big shot after big shot was huge for us."