CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Michigan State coach Tom Izzo's 19-season streak of having every four-year player reach the Final Four at least once ended last year at Madison Square Garden when the Spartans lost to eventual national champion Connecticut in the East Regional final.
This season's seventh-seeded Spartans admittedly aren't as talented as many of Izzo's teams, but they certainly showed Michigan State's trademark toughness in ousting second-seeded Virginia, 60-54, in an NCAA Tournament third-round game Sunday at TCW Arena.
The win gave Izzo his 13th Sweet 16 team in 20 seasons and hinted at the possibility of a sixth Final Four appearance in an East Regional that has lost its top two seeds, including Villanova. The Spartans (25-11) will face Oklahoma on Friday in Syracuse.
"These guys lost about as much as they could lose last year if you have  years straight of a senior class going to the Final Four,'' Izzo said. "I know that record was meant to be broken. It wasn't earth-shattering to me, but it was to them that they were part of the group that didn't. I think these guys had a lot more to play for . . . That's a driving force you should have.''
Michigan State point guard Travis Trice had a brilliant 23-point performance that included 4-for-8 three-point shooting. Rugged forward Branden Dawson was a force inside with 15 points, nine rebounds, four blocks and intimidating defense.
Virginia (30-4), led by Anthony Gill's 11 points and Darion Atkins' 10 points and 14 rebounds, shot an icy 29.8 percent from the field, including a 2-for-17 showing from three-point range.
The Cavaliers were seeking revenge after losing to MSU in the Sweet 16 last year at the Garden, but it was the Spartans who came out flying to seize control. Trice scored 13 straight points, including two three-pointers and two fast-break buckets, in lightning fashion for a 15-4 lead.
"We knew they were a great team and we had to jump on them early,'' Trice said. "The way Virginia plays, if it's a slowdown game, the momentum is in their hands. Early on, our thing was attack from the get-go. We need to try and attack, get a lead, and it gives us kind of a cushion.''
If any team in the country could match the Cavaliers' defensive toughness, it was Izzo's club. Every possession was a battle, and field goals were precious jewels for Virginia.
"We dug ourselves a hole,'' coach Tony Bennett said. "In that first five minutes, it wasn't a matter of heart or effort, but when we needed a key stop or a bucket, it wasn't there.''
Bennett credited Trice and Dawson for making big-time plays.
"Dawson was a man,'' Bennett said. "He made some tough shots, blocked shots, got on the glass . . . Trice can score at all three levels -- off the drive, the pull-up or deep threes. Those two, they were the deal.''
The Cavaliers cut the deficit to 24-22 early in the second half, but the Spartans regained control with an 8-0 burst for a 32-22 lead, including five points by Dawson. That sequence ended when he took a pass from Trice for a fast-break dunk that became a three-point play.
"I caught the ball around half-court, and all I hear is B.J. yelling 'Trav! Trav!' '' Trice said. "He just separates and goes down and finishes, gets the and-one. That was one of the major plays of the game because that changed the momentum.''
Izzo noted that Dawson was 10 feet behind Trice when he yelled.
"He looked like Secretariat,'' Izzo said. "He just put it in another gear. Branden has some special skills that he doesn't even know he has sometimes.''