SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) — All but counted out a little over a month ago, coach Tom Izzo and the Michigan State Spartans are still playing.
Next up, another Elite Eight.
Denzel Valentine scored 13 of his 18 points in the second half and Travis Trice scored six of his 21 points in the final two minutes of a 62-58 win over the Oklahoma Sooners in an NCAA Tournament East Regional semifinal on Friday night.
“I get to work another day. I can’t tell you how excited that makes me,” Izzo said. “I’m just tickled to death to still be playing.”
The Spartans (26-11) have won 11 of 14 and are headed to their second consecutive regional final and fourth since 2009.
And they’re going as a seventh-seeded team that knocked off the third-seeded Sooners (24-11), a week after knocking off No. 2 Virginia.
The Spartans are the lowest-seeded team still in the tournament, and advance to face fourth-seeded Louisville on Sunday.
Buddy Hield scored 21 points for Oklahoma, which failed in their bid to reach the regional final for the first time since the Blake Griffin-led Sooners in 2009.
“Their defense definitely bothered us in the long run,” said Oklahoma forward TaShawn Thomas, who scored 16 points and added seven rebounds. “They’re tough. They got stops when they needed to and we didn’t.”
The game turned once Michigan State took its first lead, going up 44-42 on Branden Dawson’s 8-foot turnaround jumper with 9:26 left. The teams traded the lead four times before the Spartans went ahead for good with 6:42 left, when Matt Costello put back his own miss with an emphatic dunk.
After Hield missed a 3-point attempt at the other end, Valentine responded by hitting a pull-up 3-pointer in transition to make it 51-47.
Trice called Valentine’s shot a clutch basket that turned the momentum in the Spartans’ favor.
“The stakes were high and if he misses that shot we might not be here right now,” Trice said.
Valentine’s second-half surge followed a cold first half, during which he missed six of eight attempts.
“The first half, I felt like that was my first time playing basketball,” Valentine said. “But I just kind of snapped out of it. I was like, ‘I’m in Sweet 16, and we’ve got a chance to go to the Final 4. I’m a junior, what the heck.’ I just smacked the ground and I woke up I guess.”
The Spartans rallied as well, particularly on defense.
After allowing the Sooners to hit eight of their first 11 shots and build an 18-8 lead, Michigan State’s defense held Oklahoma to finish 20 of 55.
“I don’t know if anything changed. They got more aggressive,” Sooners coach Lon Kruger said.
Michigan State, which lost to eventual champion Connecticut in the regional final last year, has overcome the loss of three of its top four scorers. And the Spartans also showed they were capable of hitting clutch free throws — something they had struggled with all season.
After missing seven of their first 10, the Spartans were perfect on their final six free throws.
Trice hit two to put Michigan State up 62-58 with 13.2 seconds left. Hield missed a 3-point attempt on what became the Sooners’ final possession in a game that stretched into Saturday morning.
Michigan State: The Spartans improved their NCAA tournament record to 62-27, and moved into seventh place on the victory list — one ahead of Syracuse. … The Spartans were a No. 7 seed when they reached the Elite 8 in 2003.
Oklahoma: Kruger stayed true to form by starting the same five he’s had all season. The Sooners are just one of six teams in the nation to start the same five this year. Kruger did the same last year. … The Sooners bench, which had combined for 30 points in its last two games, managed just 3 points against the Spartans.
Michigan State: Faces No. 4 seed Louisville in the East final on Sunday. The Spartans trail the all-time series 5-3, and meet the Cardinals the tournament for the fourth time — and third in seven years.
Oklahoma: Season is over with the Sooners losing just one starter, senior forward TaShawn Thomas, to graduation
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