ST. LOUIS — No. 15 seed Middle Tennessee State sent the biggest shock yet through the NCAA Tournament on Friday, topping second-seeded Michigan State 90-81 in the first round.
Reggie Upshaw Jr. scored 21 points to lead the balanced Blue Raiders (25-9), who shut down player of the year candidate Denzel Valentine. Middle Tennessee never trailed the Spartans (29-6) in one of the biggest upsets since the tournament began seeding teams in 1985.
It was the eighth time a 15-seed upset a 2-seed. and the first since Florida Gulf Coast beat Georgetown in 2013. The Eagles went on to reach the Sweet 16.
The Blue Raiders will try to do the same against No. 10 seed Syracuse on Sunday.
“We wanted to win this game as bad as anybody wanted us to win,” said Giddy Potts, who added 19 points for Middle Tennessee State. “We just kept being confident and making shots at the right time.”
The Spartans (29-6) were a trendy pick to win the national championship after capturing the Big Ten’s regular-season and tournament titles. Part of it had to do with the experience of Valentine and the seniors, and part of it had to do with coach Tom Izzo’s postseason pedigree.
They got sent home without leading a single second in their only game.
“It’s frustrating,” Valentine said. “Very frustrating.”
Matt Costello matched a career-best with 22 points for the Spartans, but it wasn’t enough to offset Valentine’s miserable afternoon. The senior had 13 points and 12 assists, but he also had six turnovers -- one of them coming with the Spartans trailing 79-76 and less than three minutes to go.
Michigan State twice had chances to tie the game after that, but Valentine missed an open 3 from the top of the key, and Bryn Forbes missed another.
The Blue Raiders eventually scored on back-to-back runouts to establish some breathing room, then coaxed the final few seconds off the clock.
Darnell Harris and Perrin Buford scored 15 apiece, and Jaqawn Raymond had 11, as the Conference USA champion Blue Raiders won their first NCAA Tournament game since 1989. Not that they haven’t made a statement before: They beat Kentucky in the first round in 1982.
“Our coach told us if we rebound the ball and get back on defense we’ll have a big chance to win this game,” Potts said. “We played our (butts) off today.”
They never seemed intimidated by the Spartans, either, roaring to a 15-2 lead in the opening minutes and slowly getting the Syracuse and Dayton fans in the building on their side.
Michigan State chipped away at its deficit but never managed to make an extended run. Valentine was saddled with two fouls and rendered ineffective most of the way, and the backcourt of Forbes and Eron Harris combined for four turnovers while managing a single point. Valentine’s frustration reached its apex after he committed back-to-back turnovers in the second half. During a stoppage in play and with the Blue Raiders leading 51-43, Valentine stalked back to his team’s huddle and proceeded to slam his hand into the floor.
Michigan State slowly trimmed the lead to 65-64 on a basket by Costello with eight minutes to play, but the Blue Raiders scored on their next six trips down floor to hold their lead. They held onto it the rest of the way, too.
It was the first time the Spartans, heavily favored to reach the Final Four, were bounced from the tournament in the first round since 2011.
“We just couldn’t make that one play,” the Spartans’ Tum Tum Nairn said. “That’s the thing about this tournament — tomorrow is not a guarantee.”
15-seeds who upset 2-seeds
2016: Middle Tennessee State beat Michigan State, 90-81
2013: Florida Gulf Coast beat Georgetown, 78-68
2012: Norfolk State beat Missouri, 86-84
2012: Lehigh beat Duke, 75-70
2001: Hampton beat Iowa State, 58-57
1997: Coppin State beat South Carolina, 78-65
1993: Santa Clara beat Arizona, 64-61
1991: Richmond beat Syracuse, 73-69