SYRACUSE -- In the estimation of Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, the whole NCAA Tournament is "brutal." Fair enough. But imagine what it must be like for the teams that have to play the Spartans at this time of year.
Having reached the Sweet 16 for a fourth consecutive year, Michigan State made the most of yet another opportunity, finishing strongly and holding off Oklahoma, 62-58, on Friday night. The Spartans will face Louisville on Sunday afternoon for a chance to make the Final Four.
Travis Trice led the winners with 24 points, sinking a key three-pointer with less than five minutes remaining to build a five-point lead. He made a pair of free throws with 13.6 seconds left to put away the Sooners, who were led by Buddy Hield's 21 points.
Perhaps it can be traced to the national title won by Magic Johnson, who sat behind the bench and cheered during the Spartans' burst in the second half. No matter the source, Michigan State still seems to have the magic that matters in March.
"We just have the type of players, when the money's on the line and the game's on the line, we step up to the plate, and that's what Michigan State is about," said Denzel Valentine, who made both halves of a one-and-one free-throw opportunity with 25 seconds left, giving Michigan State a four-point lead. He finished with 18 points.
"In the first half, it felt like that was my first time playing basketball," Valentine said. "But I just kind of like snapped out of it. I was like, 'I'm in the Sweet 16; we've got a chance to go to the Final Four. I'm a junior; what the heck.' I just smacked the ground and I just woke up, I guess.''
Oklahoma once appeared to be in control, building a 10-point lead on a layup by Hield with 3:33 remaining before intermission. But Valentine and Bryn Forbes each hit a three-pointer and the Spartans' defense held Hield and his teammates without a point, providing the makings of a frantic ending -- Michigan State's type of ending.
"In that first half, they gave it to us in every way we could be gotten," Izzo said. "As it should be in the NCAA Tournament, the juniors and seniors came through."
In any meeting between Oklahoma and Michigan State, there is a game-within-a-game between point guards and longtime friends, Hield and Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn. Both are from Freeport, Bahamas; they played together in prep school in Kansas and spoke about being teammates in college.
Leading up to the game, Hield said: "Even when the brackets came out, he said, 'I'll meet you in the Sweet 16.' I said, 'I'm going to get that W.' You can't let this game determine our friendship. We have a good friendship. Somebody's going to lose on Friday and I hope it's not me."
In the first half, the Oklahoma guard had the clear advantage, leading his team with 11 points while Nairn played only five minutes and was scoreless. That did not change much in the second half as Nairn never did score a point and played sparingly.
Even though Nairn's team won, Hield did have the final word, in a way. In the postgame handshake line, Hield said, "I just told him, 'Go win it all.' "