INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Denzel Valentine’s start to the Final Four was the stuff of dreams — three quick 3-pointers and an early lead for Michigan State.
He spent the rest of the night looking at a wall of white jerseys.
Valentine finished with 22 points, but the Spartans fell flat after that bright beginning, losing 81-61 to Duke in Saturday night’s national semifinal.
“They did a good job of taking me away,” Valentine said. “I got hot, and they started denying a little bit, and started forcing us to take bad shots.”
After looking so comfortable early on, Michigan State ended up shooting only 40 percent for the game. The Spartans missed 10 of their last 11 shots in the first half, a stretch they couldn’t afford against the favored Blue Devils.
So Michigan State’s season ended in the national semifinals, and the seventh-seeded Spartans (27-12) looked very much like the underdog at a Final Four that included them and three No. 1 seeds.
“We got beat. Unfortunately I thought Duke played awfully well, but I thought it wasn’t one of our better games,” said coach Tom Izzo, who is 1-9 against Mike Krzyzewski and Duke. “Give Duke credit, and give our seniors credit for getting us to a place that most people didn’t think we’d get to.”
The Spartans’ run to the Final Four was built on tough defense and timely outside shooting, with Valentine and Travis Trice leading the way. There was never that much offensive balance — and there was none on Saturday.
Trice scored 16 points and Branden Dawson added 12, but Dawson shot only 5 of 12 from the field and was Michigan State’s only real offensive threat inside.
Matt Costello scored six points for Michigan State, and nobody else had more than two.
“I think we got kind of frustrated the first half,” Valentine said. “We didn’t keep our cool a little bit. Led to turnovers and bad shots.”
The Spartans could not have asked for a much better start offensively. Valentine made two quick 3s, then Trice added one and Valentine made another. Michigan State led 14-6 and was showing no sign of nerves. A couple of Spartans slapped the floor on defense — a gesture Duke helped popularize years ago, but one Michigan State has become fond of.
“I don’t think we started the game out with the intensity that we needed,” Duke guard Quin Cook said. “A couple times … I tried to cheat a ball screen, and Trice and Valentine will make you pay.”
It turned out the early advantage was the high point for the Spartans. For the rest of the half, the Blue Devils (34-4) always seemed to have an extra defender ready to cut off Valentine and Trice on the perimeter, practically daring anyone else on Michigan State’s team to make a significant contribution.
“They were denying us on the wings, kind of turning us down. Any time they had an opportunity, they switched,” Trice said. “That’s what made it rough for us to get it on the wings.”
With about a minute left in the half, Valentine was knocked to the floor near midcourt and got up limping. He played on, but by then that early groove he and his teammates were in was long gone.
While the Spartans struggled offensively, they had nobody who could match up well inside with Duke star Jahlil Okafor at the other end. And they couldn’t keep the Blue Devils off the foul line. Duke went 27 of 37 on free throws, and Dawson, Costello and Gavin Schilling were all in foul trouble down the stretch.
“You know, you’re not allowed to touch anybody anymore,” Izzo said. “I was here when we had smash-mouth basketball. I totally agree, I don’t think that’s the right way to do it. But I also don’t think, I don’t think anybody wants to see the best players on the bench.”
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