‘He got away:’ Michigan State was on the cusp of history, but didn’t lose to Duke

It wasn’t really a plan. In a sport and a season defined by chaos, the roadmap to historic upheaval wouldn’t be a neat step-by-step guide. There were open ends, gray areas, and a decent chance that Michigan State would never be able to execute.

But there was a plan. A simple. The way Michigan State men’s basketball head coach Tom Izzo puts it: Cut it to two with about ten minutes left and put the pressure on Duke. See how they would react in record time. See if they could dig in and give something deeper when things got uncomfortable.

The pressure in question? It comes from the man sitting on the Blue Devil bench who walked, talked and coached like he had 1,199 career wins, 5 national championships and 12 Final Fours under his belt. It’s been championship or fail in Durham, North Carolina since Duke men’s basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski announced he was stepping down at the end of the 2021-22 season and no player was looking to let him down, especially against Michigan State.

But until 70-65 with 5:10 to go, the Spartans were in position. Duke suffered a more than three-minute drought and the shots Michigan State needed to stay in the game finally put them ahead. The plan, gray areas aside, played out well into the final minutes and the Spartans had more than a puncher’s chance to steal a win that would immortalize them forever.

But just like that, the switch was flipped. Freshman guard Trevor Keels hit a tie with 3:24 left. Freshman forward Paolo Banchero went to the rack to take a 75-74 lead. Sophomore guard Jeremy Roach shot three more with 1:16 to go and when all was said and done, Duke stood tall to close the game on a 13-2 run.

And like that, it’s the curtains for Michigan State with a season-ending 85-76 loss. Krzyzewski returns to the Sweet Sixteen for the 26th time and his farewell tour is in full swing. His players will have another chance to perform, if not thrive, under this magnificent pressure.

As for Izzo? He won’t start his offseason simmering on singular mistakes as much as what they missed.

“(I will) probably fight for a week because you don’t often get to be there on the threshold of something special,” he said with a hint of grief. “And it got away.”

It was Michigan State basketball this season – as Izzo sometimes said, one eyelash away from being awesome, really awesome. Clean a few things here and a few things there. Get a little more of a guy. Don’t give the ball away so much. Try to go out with energy, try to finish with a little more. They came a short eyelash once more.

But for one night, they were back on the verge of greatness. The final 59 seconds of Duke’s final clash with Michigan State at the hands of Krzyzewski and Izzo were essentially rendered futile by a pair of free throws from junior forward Wendell Moore Jr., but when the perspective changed, Izzo carried his heart on his sleeve.

“An average team without a lot of heart could have drifted into the sunset,” Izzo said. “Last year I was angry with my team at the end. This year I was proud of my team at the end.”

About last year. Michigan State’s stormy 2020-21 campaign ended with a terrible 86-80 loss to UCLA in the first four that saw the Spartans take a 12-point lead and ultimately turn around in overtime. Izzo condemned the team’s defensive lapses in the game and the resulting frustration clearly lingered in the psyches of players and coaches throughout the season.

Asked about the locker room after running into Duke, the Mackey Arena scene after UCLA came back to Izzo’s head. He said it was different than one filled with tears, instead of disappointment, Sunday night.

“It doesn’t mean anything bad,” he said. “It’s just this year, we did everything we could do.”

So the emotion in question added a depth that was not shown in the final score, one that was instead shown by the work done by two of Michigan State’s seniors to ensure they would have a chance at another game and another night.

Senior center Marcus Bingham Jr. put on an inspired performance against Duke with 16 points, 10 rebounds and the type of defense that took Banchero away from the rim on some crucial possessions while battling second center Mark Williams in the paint. His voice was calm but didn’t waver as he spoke of his “mixed emotions,” including pride after the fall.

“We kept snuggling up, trying to talk to each other, telling each other to keep going, keep playing, keep playing hard,” he said. “I’m proud of the guys. We all played hard tonight.

Junior guard Tyson Walker’s voice did. The gleam in his eye that came with the big crowds, private planes and game winners in his freshman season with Michigan State shone through a little water. His up-and-down run puts into perspective the pride of staying there all season, not just against Duke.

“For me, it was good to be here,” he said. “I wanted to win. I wanted to do it next weekend. Like people in my town, I’m the only one who got this far in the tournament. So it felt good.”

For now, it’s time for next season for the Spartans. The bitter loss of UCLA will be duly replaced by the loss of high-flying Duke as a bitter memory. Players and coaches will refer to it in much the same way in their 2022-23 season, i.e. we are not going home any earlier. We don’t lose in the second round this year.

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“We just didn’t do what we had to do to win those kinds of games. If we can learn from this, only time will tell,” Izzo said. “I’ll find out when we come back and watch the movie, how many things we didn’t do, and then we’ll try to fix them.”

An average team with a lot of heart who were on the threshold of something bigger with five minutes to go. Like the caucuses back then, Izzo said he knew exactly where they were. Another plan awaits you.

“Our program is exactly where it needs to be,” he said. “Now we have to take another step.”

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