ST. LOUIS -- In the latest installment of that long-running hit series, “Tom Izzo, Lord of the Dance,” the climactic scene went like this:
Great move. Great shot. Great moment for all of SpartanKind. Michigan State evicts Northern Iowa, 59-52, in what can legitimately be called an upset.
But peel back a few layers on that play and you see why Izzo is just so ridiculously good at this time of year.
Lucious was at the tail end of a career-high 39 minutes – nine more than his previous high and 17 more than his season average. He was playing all those minutes at point guard because the normal starting point, leading scorer Kalin Lucas, was on crutches on the sideline after tearing his Achilles tendon last week. He had missed six of his eight shots on the night against the unyielding Panthers defense.
And Izzo had enough faith in his sophomore backup to call a clear-out for him with the shot clock draining and less than 100 seconds to play and State holding a two-point lead. It wasn’t the do-or-die shot of last Sunday, when Lucious beat Maryland with a 3-pointer at the buzzer, but it was huge.
“Just a hunch,” Izzo said of the play call, one he’s made many times for Lucas. “He said he felt good, and I could tell he was confident. And that was a big, big play.”
That, in summation, is what the March version of IzzoBall is all about. The hunches all come up roses. The injuries are overcome. The puzzling performances from the regular season don’t matter anymore.
And somebody always steps up.
Or several somebodies.
In addition to Lucious on this night, it was Delvon Roe, playing 27 minutes on a torn meniscus and somehow coming up with the most spectacular play of the night, soaring in out of nowhere to crush a rebound dunk early in the second half as Michigan State roared back from a seven-point halftime deficit.
“He gave us every ounce he had,” Izzo said of Roe. “… It’s a cliché: lay it on the line. He laid it all on the line, I can promise you that.”
And it was Durrell Summers, continuing his NCAA tournament flourish with a game-high 19 points. Summers is averaging 20 points per game in the tourney, after averaging 8 over his previous eight games. At times in the first half, Summers was the only thing keeping Michigan State in the game. And at one moment in particular in the second half, he rose up and hit a 3 with 7:27 left to give the Spartans the lead for good.
“At certain times in the game we just kind of huddled up and said it’s winning time,” Summers said. “Pretty much what winning time means for us is we’re going to get down and bite the floor on defense and everything’s going to go through our defense.”
Bite the floor. Perfect. That’s defense the Izzo way. And this was defense the Izzo way:
Northern Iowa’s last basket in this game came with 10 minutes and 21 seconds to play. All the Panthers could manage the rest of the way was 10 free throws, as Michigan State stubbornly took the game away.
That truly was doing unto UNI what UNI had done to so many other teams. In the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, the Panthers held Wichita State without a field goal for 10 minutes in the final, held Bradley without a field goal for seven in the semis and Drake without a field goal for 21 minutes in the quarters.
Now here they were on the receiving end.
“They made us take some tough shots, and they played great defense in the second half,” said Farokhmanesh, who made just 1-of-6 outside the arc.
Northern Iowa joins a long list of teams who have seen their seasons end against Izzo over the past 12 NCAA tourneys. He’s now knocking on the door of a sixth Final Four since 1999, close enough to taste it.
Tennessee stands between Izzo and Indy. He has less than two days to get his hobbled team regrouped, rested and ready to face the big, athletic Volunteers.
“It’s great when you’re working at this time of year,” Izzo said. “And I’m going to be working. My whole staff will be working for the next 40 hours, and we’ll see what we can do.”
We know what Tom Izzo can do in this Dance. That’s why he’s the lord of it.