Tom Izzo's Michigan State seniors leave without a Final Four trip
They were America's favorite No. 4 seed, picked to reach the Final Four in nearly half the 11 million brackets at ESPN.com and to win the national championship in 14.6 percent -- second only to Florida.
So Michigan State's coach and players were far from alone in their surprise after losing to seventh-seeded Connecticut, 60-54, Sunday in the NCAA East Regional final at Madison Square Garden.
But naturally, they felt it even more than their supporters.
Guard Gary Harris said he was "in shock," a sentiment echoed by guard Denzel Valentine.
Senior forward Adreian Payne said, "It's tough to go out like this, when we were so close to achieving our goal."
One goal was to avoid becoming the first senior class in coach Tom Izzo's 19 seasons at Michigan State never to reach a Final Four. Izzo was 6-1 in regional finals before Sunday.
"As the game got closer and closer to ending, it was on my mind a lot, every huddle," Payne said.
Izzo did not sugarcoat his team's failure, repeatedly expressing bafflement at its 16 often ill-timed, frequently inexplicable turnovers, agreeing with a reporter's description of them as "out-of-body experiences."
The Spartans entered the game averaging 11.5 turnovers, their fewest in the Izzo era.
"Unfortunately, we did not bring our 'A' game today and we got what we deserved," he said. "A couple of times, I came out of the huddle and I was shaking my head, like, 'I haven't seen this before.' "
Izzo noted that UConn shot only 34.7 percent from the field and 22.7 percent on three-pointers and got outrebounded 32-30. "You should win 99.9 percent of those games," he said, "and we lost easy."
UConn also made 21 of 22 free throws to Michigan State's 7-for-8.
The Spartans' other problems included unbalanced scoring -- 44 of their 54 points came from three players -- and overreliance on three-pointers. They attempted 29 of them, 10 by Payne, a powerfully built 6-10, 245-pounder.
Payne said UConn did a good job keeping him out of the paint. Izzo said it was the most physical an opponent has been all season.
Another problem: Forward Branden Dawson, who scored 24 points against Virginia on Friday, managed only five Sunday.
Michigan State also had to contend with a heavily pro-UConn crowd. When Richard Hamilton, star of UConn's 1999 championship team, was shown on the video board, he mostly was cheered; when Mateen Cleaves, star of the Spartans' 2000 championship team, was shown, he mostly was booed.
It appeared Michigan State was in control when it led 32-23 early in the second half, but Connecticut scored 26 of the next 33 points to take a 49-39 lead.
The clincher came when guard Keith Appling, the Spartans' other key senior, was called for fouling UConn's Shabazz Napier on a three-point try with 31 seconds left. Napier made all three free throws to give the Huskies a 56-51 cushion.
Izzo did not think it was a foul. Neither did Appling, who said, "I thought I had all ball. [The officials] thought otherwise."
Michigan State never did solve Napier, who had 25 points, six rebounds and four assists, leading Harris to say of him, "He's a winner and he willed his team to victory."
No one was able to do the same for the Spartans, who had looked to be healthy and peaking at the right time.
Izzo said he called a timeout in the final seconds to urge his returning players to "capture the moment and learn from it" for next time. But it already was too late for this time.