Friday, March 26, 2010
St. Louis No big shots from Ali Farokhmanesh. No mid-major magic.
Just another trip to the regional finals for Michigan State.
Durrell Summers scored 19 points and Korie Lucious hit a whirling turnaround jumper with about 90 seconds left, helping the fifth-seeded Spartans survive a scare with a 59-52 win over pesky Northern Iowa in the Midwest Regional semifinals Friday night.
Playing without injured star Kalin Lucas, Michigan State (27-8) needed a half to get used to Northern Iowa's grinding style and held the Panthers to 10 free throws and no field goals over the final 10:22 to send the heroes of the Heartland home empty-handed.
Northern Iowa (30-5) knocked off one March monster but couldn't make it two straight, unable to contain the athletic Spartans for an entire game after stunning top-seeded Kansas in the second round.
Adam Koch had 13 points and Kwadzo Ahelegbe 12 for the Panthers, but Farokhmanesh, the early-round hero, was just 1 for 6 from 3-point range.
Michigan State, last year's national runner-up, turned the game on defense in the second half, escaping with a difficult win as Lucas watched from the bench in a walking boot.
Lucious, the second-round hero, hit his acrobatic shot, then the Spartans held. Chris Allen followed with a putback with 31 seconds left, putting the Spartans up 57-51 and on their way to Sunday's regional final against sixth-seeded Tennessee.
A few years back, maybe this was a mismatch: the powerhouse from the Big Ten against the scrappy mid-major.
Not this year.
Northern Iowa has done its best to shake the underdog tag, reaching the NCAA tournament five of past seven years, moving into the round of 16 this year for the first time with wins over UNLV and top overall seed Kansas.
Farokhmanesh ran off the Runnin' Rebels with a 3-pointer with 4.9 seconds left in the opening round, then topped it with a no-no-no-great-shot! 3 to take out the Jayhawks. The son of an Iranian Olympic volleyball player, Farokhmanesh has become a folk hero back in Cedar Falls, a Stephen Curry-like sensation to the rest of the country.
Of course, all the Panthers have moved into a new level of fame, appearing on magazine covers, fans from all over jumping aboard the purple-powered bandwagon.
Michigan State has been the monument of the bracket under coach Tom Izzo: 13 straight NCAA tournaments, seven trips to the round of 16, five Final Fours, a national title in 2000.
This has been a little tougher trip.
The resilient Spartans survived a whack-a-mole-like season filled with winning streaks, injuries, suspensions and benchings.
The latest downturn came in the second round, when Lucas ruptured his Achilles' tendon against Maryland, leaving the Spartans without their scoring, assists and all-around leader.
Having Allen and forward Delvon Roe hampered by lingering injuries wasn't going to make it any easier.
Northern Iowa took advantage early.
Grinding the game down with their smothering defense, the Panthers got the tempo they wanted: slow-and-not-so-easy.
Koch, previously quiet in the postseason, scored nine quick points and Northern Iowa held the Spartans to 7-of-22 shooting, going into halftime with a 29-22 lead on Ahelegbe's buzzer-beating jumper.
But the Spartans fought back.
Appearing more comfortable against Northern Iowa's swarming man defense, Michigan State hit six of its first seven shots during an opening 16-5 run, going up 38-34 on Roe's sky-high alley-oop off a sore knee.
Northern Iowa responded in typical fashion, setting up a foul-filled final 7 minutes that Michigan State grinded into another regional final appearance.