Morgan's late free throw topples Tennessee, 70-69
• Photo gallery: NCAA: Michigan State vs. Tennessee
By NANCY ARMOUR
ST. LOUIS — The players come and go, the years pass. About the only thing that doesn't change is Tom Izzo's and Michigan State's mastery in March.
The fifth-seeded Spartans are on their way to their second straight Final Four and sixth in 12 years after Raymar Morgan's free throw with less than 2 seconds left lifted Michigan State to a 70-69 victory over Tennessee in the Midwest Regional final yesterday.
"There is nothing greater than going to a Final Four that I know of," Izzo said, "except winning it."
No team in the country — not North Carolina, not Kansas, not UCLA, not Kentucky — has been better during the Spartans' run. And all six of those trips have come under Izzo, the hard-nosed coach who preaches defense, rebounding, defense, physical play, and have we mentioned defense?
Izzo, who took over from longtime mentor Jud Heathcote for the 1995-96 season, is 6-1 in the regional finals. His only loss was to top-seeded Texas in 2003.
"Tom Izzo does his best in the NCAA tournament," said Magic Johnson, who sat in the Michigan State cheering section and embraced Izzo after the game. "He loves the big moment. He understands what he needs to do against every team. He comes up with a great game plan every single time. He deserves all the credit in the world."
The Spartans, last year's national runner-up, will be looking for championship No. 3 next weekend in Indianapolis. They play Butler, also a No. 5 seed and sure to be the hometown favorite, in the semifinals Saturday night.
"They're hot right now. They're playing some of their best basketball," Morgan said. "But we're also hot right now. We're playing some of our best basketball."
The Spartans (28-8) led by as many as eight in the second half, but Brian Williams pulled sixth-seeded Tennessee (28-9) within 69-68 on a putback with 2:10 left. Korie Lucious, who took over as point guard after 2009 Big Ten player of the year Kalin Lucas ruptured his Achilles' tendon last weekend, missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 29 seconds left and Scotty Hopson got the rebound.
Hopson was fouled at the other end, and made the first. But after a Michigan State timeout, he missed the second and Lucious ended up with the rebound. Morgan was fouled by J.P. Prince with 1.8 seconds left and made the first. After timeouts by both teams, Morgan bricked the second shot on purpose.
Williams came up with the rebound and Tennessee called a quick timeout. But Prince fumbled the inbounds pass and had to heave up a prayer from midcourt just before the buzzer.
"It's just tough, one second," Prince said. "You want to shoot it perfect but you've got to rush. You don't want it to come down to a half-court shot, but that's what it came down to."
The Spartans have been forced to go with an offense-by-committee but, somehow, it works. Durrell Summers, who's taken over the bulk of the scoring, finished with 21 points on 8-of-10 shooting despite playing just 9 minutes in the first half because of foul trouble. Morgan and Draymond Green added 13 each, and Morgan also had 10 rebounds.
"Things happen throughout the season," Summers said. "Once we got to tournament time, we said we'll have a fresh start."
Tennessee made its first six shots of the game — going 4 for 4 from 3-point range, shot 51 percent overall and had four players in double figures, led by senior Wayne Chism's 13 points.
"We came to St. Louis expecting to win two games and we played pretty well both nights," Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said. "We saw all that orange out there. This isn't close to home, either. They got in their car and they drove here. I think they enjoyed this group tremendously."