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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — Any hopes that Valparaiso had for staging an upset might as well have evaporated when Gary Harris hit his first 3-pointer.
While it didn’t necessarily provide a dramatic ending or drive a dagger through the proverbial armor of the Crusaders, Harris’ shot broke an early tie between the two teams and kicked off a lengthy and significant run for the No. 3 Spartans.
That first-half run proved pivotal for Michigan State in a 65-54 win Thursday over No. 14 Valparaiso in a second-round NCAA tournament game in the Midwest regional at the Palace of Auburn Hills.
Michigan State will face No. 6 Memphis, a 54-52 winner against No. 11 St. Mary’s, in a third-round game Saturday at the Palace.
In the opening moments, little was crisp about the Spartans’ game. But after Harris’ shot, the Spartans (26-8) found their groove. Michigan State launched a decisive first-half run and with the help of Derrick Nix’s game-high 23 points and his defensive presence underneath the basket, minimized any offensive presence Valparaiso hoped to maintain, or let alone establish.
“It’s frustrating when you’ve got two good guys coming at you on offense, but you’ve got to just take your time,” said Nix, who was held to nine points in the first half but finished with 15 rebounds, including six on defense.
Tied 8-8 at a media timeout with 11:01 left in the first half, Harris’ 3-pointer sparked a 10-2 run for the Spartans, and Branden Dawson’s dunk forced the Crusaders (26-8) to call its first timeout at 9:23, facing an 18-10 deficit.
“[Harris] was able to make some shots for us, and those were big for us at the time because things were a little rugged, and it gave us a little momentum,” Michigan State guard Keith Appling said.
Michigan State opened the game 3 for 14 from the floor, but in its first definitive run, its offense exploited Valparaiso’s zone coverage. While Nix scored 14 of his 23 points in the second half, his first-half defensive presence under the net hampered the Crusaders.
“He just sealed us a little too low, too close to the rim,” Valparaiso forward Ryan Broekhoff said. “And with his size and his skill level around the hoop, it’s almost impossible to guard him. I thought we did a good job at times. But over the course of 40 minutes, he found his spots and was able to convert.”
Valpo went nearly eight minutes without a successful shot from the floor — Matt Kenney’s jumper with 10:14 left, and his 3-pointer with 2:24 left — as Michigan State closed the first half on a 27-7 run.
“We knew coming in we were going to have to rebound,” said Valparaiso coach Bryce Drew, whose team trailed 35-18 at halftime. “We knew we were going to have to get back in transition, and we knew our margin was going to be small, that we were going to have to shoot the ball exceptionally well. I was very pleased, as a coach, with the looks we got. I thought we got quality looks.”
But the Crusaders didn’t make the quality shots. Valparaiso went 6 for 26 from the floor in the first half, with half of its shot attempts coming from behind the 3-point line, and Michigan State opened up its lead to as many as 27 points less than six minutes into the second half. The Spartans were never threatened the rest of the way.