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Duane Cross | | April 5, 2015

The March is over

Champ. Countdown: Tom Izzo 1-on-1

INDIANAPOLIS -- Unfortunately for Michigan State, it’s April.

Gone are the halcyon days of March, when the Spartans’ improbable run created madness akin to the 2014 UConn Huskies:

• No. 18 preseason ranking;
• 12-6 record in conference play;
• third-place finish in the conference regular season;
• lost to the regular season champion in the conference tournament;
• No. 7 seed in the East Regional;
• defeated the Nos. 10, 2 and 3 seeds in the early rounds;
• posted a six-point win against the No. 4 seed in the Elite Eight;
• and played a No. 1 seed in the Final Four.

Alas, UConn finished the drill, winning the national championship with a 60-54 victory against Kentucky.

On Friday, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo was openly unapologetic for spending Easter weekend in Indianapolis. “I would be the first to admit that a month and a half ago I questioned where we are. But we've earned our right to be here, too. So we're not going to apologize anymore.”

Michigan State, however, is headed home. The Spartans -- looking to become the first 11-loss champion since Kansas in 1988 -- were run out of the gym by Duke 81-61 on Saturday night in the Final Four.

Buoyed by an early 14-6 lead, Michigan State seemed destined for the big stage. As it turned out, that was the high-water mark; Duke reeled off a 14-2 run, punctuated by a dunk from Jahlil Okafor, to take an 20-16 lead and the rout was on.

The Spartans’ opening volley was bolstered by three 3-point shots by Denzel Valentine. At the 16:16 mark of the first half MSU held its eight-point lead but coming out of a TV timeout, Duke upped the defensive pressure.

“They did a good job of taking me away,” Valentine said. “I got hot. They started denying a little bit, started forcing us to take bad shots. Next thing you know, they had a lead.”

Added Travis Trice: “A lot of our turnovers were really unforced. They were kind of on us trying to make the extra play or make the home run play. I think that came to bite us [Saturday night].

“Our main problem in the first half was we were starting our offense out too far. Most of that was my fault,” Trice added. “It was kind of getting us out of our rhythm. It forced us into bad shots because we were so late in the shot clock, we're 40, 50 feet from the rim. We got pushed out too far. We should have started our offense in closer.”

The Blue Devils’ advantage was 36-25 at halftime and the crowd at Lucas Oil Stadium seemed ready for the main course, Wisconsin vs. Kentucky. However, Duke wasn’t finished filling the basket.

After shooting a blistering 45.8 percent in the first half, Duke mashed the gas in the final 20 minutes. The Blue Devils were 15 of 26 (57.7 percent) in the second half and scored 45 points despite being 0-for-4 from behind the 3-point arc. (Duke was only 2 of 10 for the game.)

Okafor was one of three Duke players in double figures, and added six rebounds with two blocks and two steals. “Jahlil, he's an elite player. Every time he got the ball, he just made a great move,” Michigan State’s Branden Dawson said.

“Everyone talks about what can we do to stop him. He's a good player, so he's going to score. He established position in the post and he made some great post moves.”

Valentine scored a game-high 22 points -- 11 in each half -- but ultimately was not a factor after Duke turned up the wick defensively in the first half. “They did a good job of denying us, forcing us out. We took some bad shots, had some bad turnovers. That was the difference in the game.”

“Well, we got beat, unfortunately. I thought Duke played awfully well, but I thought it wasn't one of our better games,” Izzo said. “I think they deserve some credit. Yet I feel bad because I didn't think people got to see the team that has won 12 out of the last 15 games.

“Give Duke credit and give our seniors credit for getting us to a place that most people didn't think we'd get to.”

One place that Duke probably didn’t expect to get to -- at least not 37 times -- was the free-throw line. The Blue Devils were 27-for-37 from the stripe, including 9 of 11 by Justise Winslow; Michigan State was 10 of 16.

“You can blame me for Okafor,” Izzo said, “because personally that's exactly what we wanted to do, if we could hold him to under 20 points, take away their threes, we did exactly what we wanted to do, to be honest with you.

“What beat us -- the free throws and the turnovers. At halftime, we had two assists. We've been ranked in the top of the country in assists all year. I thought that was our fault. We moved the ball good early, a lot of good things happened. We got caught making a couple of unforced plays -- that was the difference in the game.”

Foul trouble, lack of assists … and an untimely flip of the calendar, it seems.

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