ST. LOUIS — Don’t bet against Tom Izzo and Michigan State this time of year.
Raymar Morgan’s free throw with less than 2 seconds left gave the Spartans a 70-69 victory over Tennessee in the Midwest Regional final Sunday, sending Michigan State to its sixth Final Four in 12 years and second in a row.
No team in the country — not North Carolina, not Kentucky, not UCLA — has done it better during that span. And all six trips have come under Izzo, the hard-nosed coach who preaches defense, rebounding and physical play.
“I like it more than I used to,” Izzo said of playing in March. “It’s even better than I thought.”
Oh, and how’s this for some symmetry? This happens to be the 10th anniversary of the “Flintstones,” the team that gave Michigan State its second national title. Highlights from that run were included in the video montage of past championships that played on the Edward Jones Dome’s massive Jumbotron during halftime.
The fifth-seeded Spartans, last year’s national runner-up, will be looking for championship No. 3 next weekend in Indianapolis. They play Butler, also a No. 5 seed and sure to be the hometown favorite, in the semifinals Saturday night.
The Spartans (28-8) led by as many as eight in the second half, but Brian Williams pulled sixth-seeded Tennessee (28-9) within 69-68 on a putback with 2:10 left. Korie Lucious, who took over as point guard after 2009 Big Ten player of the year Kalin Lucas ruptured his Achilles’ tendon last weekend, missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 29 seconds left and Scotty Hopson got the rebound.
Hopson was fouled at the other end, and made the first. But after a Michigan State timeout, he missed the second and Lucious — generously listed at 5-foot-11 — ended up with the rebound.
Draymond Green fed the ball inside to Morgan, who got hacked by J.P. Prince with 1.8 seconds left. Morgan made the first and, after timeouts by both teams, missed the second — on purpose. Williams came up with the rebound but Prince fumbled the inbounds pass and had to heave up a prayer just before the buzzer.
“It’s just tough, 1 second,” Prince said. “You want to shoot it perfect but you’ve got to rush. You don’t want it to come down to a half-court shot, but that’s what it came down to.”
Prince wasn’t even close, and Michigan State and its fans — led by Spartan-in-chief Magic Johnson — began what’s become a traditional postgame celebration.
“I’m not surprised,” Johnson said. “Tom Izzo does his best in the NCAA tournament.”
Hard to argue with that.
Izzo, who took over from longtime mentor Jud Heathcote for the 1995-96 season, is 6-1 in the regional finals. The only loss was to top-seeded Texas in 2003.
Michigan State is the only team from last year’s Final Four to make it back. Heck, North Carolina, which demolished the Spartans in the title game, didn’t even make the NCAA tournament. Neither did Connecticut, and Villanova was knocked out in the second round.
“There is nothing greater than going to a Final Four that I know of,” Izzo said, “except winning it.”
And while it’s hard to beat that title in 2000, this might be the finest coaching job Izzo has done. In addition to losing Lucas, Delvon Roe is playing on a torn meniscus and Chris Allen has an aching foot. The Spartans have been forced to go to an offense-by-committee, led by Durrell Summers.
Summers, who played just 9 minutes in the first half because of foul trouble, finished with 21 points on 8-of-10 shooting. Morgan and Green added 13 each, and Morgan also had 10 rebounds.
Tennessee, meanwhile, will have to take comfort in knowing it got further than any other Volunteers team. This was their first appearance in the regional finals, and there is no question they belonged. They made their first six shots of the game — going 4 for 4 from 3-point range, shot 51 percent overall and had four players in double figures, led by senior Wayne Chism’s 13 points.
Prince finished with 12 on 5-of-5 shooting, and Williams had 11.
Tennessee has long been a basketball powerhouse — in women’s hoops. But coach Bruce Pearl has energized the men’s program, as evidenced by the orange-hued dome and the Vols’ first appearance in the regional final. Few would have thought the Tennessee men would last longer than the top-seeded women, who were beaten by No. 4 Baylor on Saturday in the regional semifinals.
“We came to St. Louis expecting to win two games and we played pretty well both nights,” Pearl said. “We saw all that orange out there. This isn’t close to home, either. They got in their car and they drove here. I think they enjoyed this group tremendously.”
Though they were going against a program that oozes experience — “Final Fours are a big thing in this program,” Green said Saturday — the Vols came in with swagger and strut.
Chism’s 3-pointer put them up 50-45 with 15:46 left and prompted another roar from the thousands of Tennessee fans who had made the trek north. But come tournament time, the Spartans simply find a way to get it done. Cranking up the in-your-jersey defense that makes Big Ten opponents shudder, they held the Vols without a field goal for the next 7½ minutes while ripping off a 14-1 run.
Chris Allen made a 3, and Summers converted a three-point play after being fouled on a jumper just inside the line. After Williams’ free throw, Morgan scored on a layup and Lucious hit a 3-pointer to put the Spartans up 56-51 with 12:25 to play.
As a timeout was called, Lucious held up his right hand toward the Michigan State section as if to say, “Bring it on.”
Green then converted another three-point play, giving the Spartans a 59-51 lead, the largest of the game, with 11:42 to play.
But the Volunteers had one more run in them. Bobby Maze scored on a layup — Tennessee’s first field goal since 15:46 — and Williams followed with two jumpers to put the Vols back on top, 62-61, setting up the frenetic finish.