When sophomore guard KorieLucious buried a buzzer-beating three-pointer, lifting Michigan State over Maryland last Sunday, he not only advanced his team to the NCAA Tournament's round of sixteen for the second straight year; he also demonstrated the toughness, determination, and leadership that characterize coach Tom Izzo's program.
Seasoned college basketball fans are used to hearing pundits pontificate on the importance of tournament experience, especially at the guard position. Based on this widely accepted maxim, the Spartans should have lost handily to the Terrapins rather than beat them, 85-83.
After losing seasoned sharpshooter Chris Allen to a strained arch, Kalin Lucas, MSU's two-time All-Big Ten point guard and architect of the Spartans' Final Four run last season, went down during the first half with a ruptured Achilles tendon.
After losing their leader, the Spartans had every excuse to fold against a tenacious Maryland team. Instead, with their starting back court sidelined, MSU hung tough, battling Maryland's intense pressure defense to pull out the win, in dramatic fashion.
When the time came, Lucious didn't panic and rush his final shot. He calmly squared up to the hoop and drained the game-winning basket as time expired. This steely resolve is not limited to Michigan State's sophomore sensation, either.
Junior Durrell Summers also came up big, picking up the scoring slack from the injured Allen. Summers caught fire in the second half, eventually scoring a career-high 26 points on 10-14 shooting, including 6-7 from three-point range.
That's an impressive field-goal percentage for a dominant big man, let a lone a 6' 4" shooting guard.
Performances like these won't surprise anyone who's followed MSU's rise since Izzo took the reigns from his mentor, Jud Heathcote, in 1995. "Coach Tom," as his players are fond of calling him, prepares his team all season for situations like the one they faced against Maryland.
Every player on the floor is a leader, ready to step up if one of his teammates goes down.
If the Spartans continue to persevere and pull off two more wins, they'll return to college basketball's promised land, the NCAA Tournament's Final Four, for the sixth time in Izzo's fifteen seasons.
It won't be easy, though. Michigan State takes on a tough Northern Iowa squad Friday evening that dominated the tournament's number one overall seed, Kansas, last weekend.
To advance, Lucious will have to take better care of the ball than he did against Maryland, when several turnovers down the stretch almost cost MSU the game.
However, if history is any guide, he and his fellow Spartans will rise to the occasion and answer the bell.
Coach Izzo's accomplishments demonstrate that a program is more than just the sum of its wins and losses. Success is also measured by how it prepares its players for the larger game of life.
Whether or not they win another game in this year's tournament, this Spartan team has proven that it has the heart of a champion.
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