MINNEAPOLIS - To point to one area that was the most costly for Michigan State yesterday in its 80-61 loss to Arizona in the semifinals of the NCAA Final Four would be impossible because the Spartans had so many imperfections, especially in the second half.
It started with inferior guard play; MSU's backcourt was completely outplayed in regard to scoring and ball-handling. It ended with shoddy defense and rebounding.
Those were the two discernible components that got the defending national champions here as a No. 1 seed after a fourth consecutive Big Ten championship, a 28-4 record, a No.3 national ranking and 10 consecutive NCAA Tournament triumphs.
It was all so un-Spartan-like that it even befuddled Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, who said afterward, “You're talking to a guy who is totally confused today.
“For some reason we were not with it all day long. Don't mind me for being this confused. Maybe they were even better than I thought. I thought they were very good, but we just did some things that we haven't done. I don't really have a good answer why.
“I give Arizona a lot of credit. I told the guys afterward that it happens now and then. It happens, and it just seemed like ... I don't remember our guys playing like that in four years, not only in this game.”
The 19-point margin represented MSU's worst loss since an 84-63 setback at Illinois on Feb. 12, 1998 and the school's worst NCAA Tournament setback ever.
Michigan State's starting guards, Charlie Bell and Jason Richardson, were a combined 3-of-21 from the field for a total of nine points. Bell also had five turnovers.
Arizona guards Gilbert Arenas and Jason Gardner were a combined 10-of-18 from the field, Gardner finishing with a game-high 21 points.
Arenas suffered a shoulder injury in the second half and played only 27 minutes but still had seven assists and six steals.
The Wildcats' ball-handlers were so efficient that Arizona had 12 steals and a season-low eight turnovers.
The Spartans were extremely turnover-prone in the second half with 11, many point-to-wing passes that were picked off and led to easy layups.
Arizona had 21 points off turnovers to Michigan State's 11.
“They were just one step quicker to the ball than we were,” Bell explained. “They did a great job of reacting to the ball.”
MSU held a 40-33 rebounding edge, but Arizona had one more defensive rebound - that alone being a moral victory against the nation's best rebounding team.
Arizona coach Lute Olson felt his team could out-shoot the Spartans, but couldn't give up a lot of offensive rebounds that would lead to considerably more shots by MSU.
As it turned out, Michigan State had only one more possession than the Wildcats and the Spartans were outshot 50 per cent to 41 per cent.
Arizona defensed MSU in such a manner that it would be up to Michigan State's guards to provide a majority of the offense. The Spartans made only 2 of 14 3-point attempts.
The Wildcats were the first team to shoot 50 per cent from the field against Michigan State this season. Arizona also became just the third team to reach the 80-point mark against Michigan State this season.
Amazingly, MSU never led in this game.
In four previous NCAA Tournament contests, the Spartans had trailed for a total of only 5:09, all of that against Gonzaga in the “Sweet 16” last weekend.
Michigan State didn't play particularly well in the first half but trailed only 32-30.
MSU's undoing came at the start of the second half when Arizona put together a 16-1 run to push to a 48-31 advantage.
The Spartans went on a 12-2 run to get within nine at 57-48 with 9:35 to play, but they would get no closer than 10 after that.
For Arizona (28-7) it was the 11th consecutive victory. Since losing to Stanford on Jan. 6, the Wildcats are 20-2, their only two losses on the road at UCLA and Oregon.
“We knew that it was going to come down to the boards and turnovers,” Olson said. “We honestly felt that we shot the basketball better than they did. As long as we didn't give up a huge number of additional possessions, we felt we could outshoot them. We couldn't give them so many second and third efforts.”
That was a lot to ask for against a team that was out-rebounding its opponents by more than 15 per game to easily lead the nation in that category.
But Arizona was good enough - and then some - to get the job done.
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