The East Regional Sweet 16 matchups in Washington, D.C. tipped off Friday evening amid much fanfare and national interest. From Michigan State’s Aaron Henry’s first stepback jumper to open the scoring right until Virginia Tech’s Ahmed Hill’s alley-oop rolled off the rim to end the nightcap, hardly one fan in Capital One Arena could say that the contests between the East’s top four seeded teams had not lived up to the colossal hype.
2-seed Michigan State and 3-seed LSU squared off first on Friday. With both squads boasting NBA prospects and tournament-tough veterans alike, the game promised a spicy clash of styles between the hyper-efficient Spartans, who lead the country in total assists, and an opportunistic, athletic Tigers team that ranked second in the SEC in both scoring average and steals per game.
The freshman Henry has been a role player all season for Michigan State, averaging 5.6 points and 3.8 rebounds in 18.8 minutes per game entering Friday. In fact, Henry had most prominently been featured in headlines this season last weekend, when he was the recipient of an intense tongue-lashing from head coach Tom Izzo in MSU’s game against 15-seed Bradley. Hence, that first jumper, a clean look from the elbow after a hard dribble and pull-up, might have been written off by many as an anomalous basket. The same could have been said of Gabe Brown’s triple at 15:31, considering the freshman was only averaging 2.0 points per game himself.
On Friday night, however, it seemed every moment that caused the purple-and-yellow-clad LSU faithful to get on their feet was followed by a smooth-as-you-like lefty jumper from #11 or #13 in green. When it is all said and done, Henry’s 20 points and Brown’s 15 mean that the Spartans’ press packet writers will have some updating to do before their game against Duke Sunday—in the “career highs” section.
“It was one of those nights where I thought the basket was huge,” Henry said.
Michigan State scored the first eight points Friday, with Henry following up with a corner three off a steal before Matt McQuaid found All-American Cassius Winston for another trey. Star point guard Tremont Waters battled relentlessly on the other end to keep the Tigers within striking distance, but the crowd may have gotten their first indication it was just Sparty’s night as the seldom-used Brown hit back-to-back triples to stretch the MSU lead to 16-7.
“They had some guys that stepped up,” LSU interim head coach Tony Benford said postgame. “We wanted to contain Cassius. But you’ve got to give guys credit. Brown and Henry made shots.”
Meanwhile, one of the most intriguing storylines of the MSU-LSU bout ahead of tipoff was how the frontcourt battle would materialize in D.C. Xavier Tillman and Nick Ward had been respectable bigs all season for State, but they faced the stiffest of tests in LSU’s Naz Reid and Kavell Bigby-Williams, the main driving forces of LSU’s 10th-ranked offensive rebounding rate.
Tillman and Ward will march into the Elite 8 with straight-As. In a stunning development, Michigan State had 21 rebounds at halftime, including ten offensive boards, while LSU had just ten total rebounds.
“Those bigs did a great job. They were battling the whole night; they put bodies on people all night,” Winston remarked. “Our runs came when we cleaned up the glass and didn’t allow them to get the second-chance opportunities.”
“Team effort” doesn’t begin to describe how impressive the Spartans’ performance was. On a rare Brown miss, there was Tillman in perfect position to put it right back up. The nearest player to him? Aaron Henry. Reid, woefully out of position, could only foul Tillman to give him an and-one opportunity while trying to recover.
Henry would grab two offensive rebounds a few possessions later, then went into a spin and step-back for another two. At halftime, Reid had four points and three rebounds; Bigby-Williams could only muster a point. Meanwhile, the 6-6 Henry had already grabbed seven boards. Due to their dominance on the glass, the Spartans had attempted nine more field goals (34-25) than LSU at halftime, and led, 40-28.
“It was very frustrating,” Reid commented postgame on the Tigers’ rebounding efforts. “And [we] just missed check outs and things like that. They wanted them more and they got them.”
After the break, LSU looked more like the team that had surprised to win the SEC regular-season title. Waters stepped back on McQuaid and hit a tough three before pickpocketing the seemingly infallible Winston, leading to an easy layup. Spartans forward Kenny Goins hit his first field goal after an 8-0 Tiger spurt opened the period, before Henry found Tillman underneath after State broke the LSU press.
3-pointers from Brown and Henry shortly thereafter restored the 12-point advantage for MSU. Tigers guard Darius Days got in on the action with a three of his own, but the senior Ward snuffed out the potential run, pinning an LSU dunk attempt to the backboard before–you guessed it–Brown dialed up another triple.
The game ended 80-63 to send the Spartans to their first Elite 8 in four years. Michigan State had 22 assists to LSU’s eight, while only committing seven turnovers, answering Izzo’s challenge to the team to take care of the ball in emphatic fashion.
“We’ve been just taking advantage of opportunities all year,” Winston said. “We haven’t–none of these guys really made it to this point before. So we’re enjoying every moment of it.”
And following the backlash Izzo received on social media after he chewed out Henry last week? What a response from the Indianapolis native, and a win for those who rushed to defend Izzo’s coaching tactics.
“I truly do appreciate Aaron Henry. I appreciate the fact that instead of moping and complaining like everybody else in the world, he went to work,” Izzo stated postgame. “And that’s why he’s going to be a great player before he’s done–I mean a great player.”
“I’ll be forever grateful for what he’s done for me and the love he’s shown for me,” Henry responded.
For LSU, it’s back to the drawing board despite the team’s best showing in years–head coach Will Wade remains suspended while under investigation regarding alleged payments to freshman guard Javonte Smart in his recruitment. Benford, meanwhile, looks less likely to get the full-time job now despite guiding the team to wins over Yale and Maryland, while Waters and Reid could very well bolt to the NBA after their strong seasons.
Duke and Virginia Tech waged war thirty minutes after the conclusion of the game in a rematch of the February 26 contest in Blacksburg that the Hokies won, 77-72. With both Zion Williamson and Tech’s Justin Robinson in action after missing that thriller due to injuries, fireworks were expected in the all-ACC tilt.
The nightcap delivered in every sense with the teams trading blows at breakneck pace. Ahmed Hill’s off-balance three to kick things off was followed by Zion muscling inside for a bucket. A thunderous Williamson putback was answered when Kerry Blackshear got a favorable bounce on his top of the key jumper. Another Hill three was matched by Zion, before Nickeil Alexander-Walker found Wabissa Bede for a corner three, but then Tre Jones slid a pass to Javin DeLaurier for the slam.
Virginia Tech had assists on all five of their field goals. Meanwhile, freshman guard RJ Barrett, who shot only 1-of-6 in the first half, took up the mantle of facilitator for Tre Jones, finding his classmate on back-to-back trips down the floor for 3-pointers. Jones stayed hot with an and-one before a slick steal and assist for Alex O’Connell, and Duke had flipped the score, 28-24. Now it was the senior Robinson’s turn to get in on the action, as he hit two threes in quick succession to push VT back in front.
At halftime Tech led, 38-34–a nearly identical score to the first-half tally from that February battle (VT held a 38-33 halftime advantage). Bede had already reached his season-high with ten points on 4-of-5 shooting, though that came partly at the expense of Alexander-Walker’s production (two points). Barrett had seven assists despite his lack of scoring, while Jones led the Blue Devils with 12 points.
RJ Barrett loves scoring, though. He has proved as much in already becoming Duke’s all-time leading freshman scorer by over 100 points, and went to work as soon as the ball was inbounded to begin the second half. After getting to the rim with ease to begin the final frame, fellow Canadian Alexander-Walker beat Barrett to get a bucket–and then Barrett committed a turnover, stepping out of bounds seconds later. The gauntlet had been laid down. After a Williamson foul call was changed to a jump ball, Barrett bullied his way inside for an and-one, and would beat his man to the can twice more before the under-12 timeout. The drought in his rearview mirror, Barrett quickly had 16 points eight minutes into the second half.
Barrett attributed the outburst to a coaching alteration: “First half [they were] really taking my drive away, and Tre was able to knock shots down and it was great. And then second half, Coach really made adjustments on the offense and I was able to get open.”
Head coach Buzz Williams’ Hokies had hardly gone away, however. Robinson, who had beaten Duke in three of his four years with the program, started to take the reins with Alexander-Walker quiet. A tough take to the rim from the Manassas, Virginia native gave VT a two-point lead, while Robinson then kept his cool to find Isaiah Wilkins behind the arc as the shot clock expired.
With Duke leading by one and Tech adjusting to Barrett’s ball dominance, the Blue Devils worked the ball right back to the Sporting News Player of the Year, Williamson. After he found Jones behind the arc out of a double team, Jones returned the favor on the next possession, finding Williamson way upstairs for a gravity-defying alley-oop that shook the foundation of Capital One Arena and gave Duke a 58-52 lead .
Chuckling, Jones remarked postgame: “I know how high Zion can jump, and that’s a momentum play for us. Being able to put it up there, I know he’s going to go get it.”
The Blue Devils started to assert their superiority as the homestretch neared, and threatened to run away with the game. Crafty baskets inside from Marques Bolden and Barrett preceded yet another layup from Williamson after he forced his way to the rim. The Hokies stayed in it, however, with Robinson recording an and-one before Alexander-Walker spun to the hole on Barrett.
The deficit stood at six with just over two minutes remaining, and the Hokies showed just why this squad has enjoyed arguably the finest in school history. An athletic up-and-under layup from Hill preceded a Blackshear basket, while Robinson then ceded no ground to Williamson at the free throw line, drawing a crucial charge with VT down four. Two Robinson free throws made the game a two-point affair, while Jones then uncharacteristically missed the front end of a one-and-one.
The Hokies would have two 3-point attempts in the waning seconds from Hill and Ty Outlaw that were well off the mark–however, they regained possession after both attempts. After Outlaw’s miss, Tech had one final chance inbounding from underneath the bucket with 1.1 ticks left, trailing by two.
Virginia Tech ran a play that Hill said assistant head coach Jamie McNeilly drew up last year. With the Blue Devils running man coverage, Hill made a tight, hard circle around the low block in an attempt to shake Williamson–which he did successfully. Hill rose to the rim, Robinson threw the pass, and Williamson could only watch. Robinson would say that the pass was off-center–Coach Williams called it “perfect.” Regardless, Hill took one touch to guide the ball toward the goal and came up short and left.
“Justin threw a great pass and I just came up short. And that was about it. I wasn’t worried about anything,” Hill said next to his bleary-eyed teammate Robinson. “I just tried to get my eyes locked on the rim and it just bounced to the left.”
The Blue Devils survived another heart-in-your-throat scare and took one step closer to their 13th Final Four under head coach Mike Krzyzewski, a mark that would be an NCAA record. The freshman trio of Jones, Williamson, and Barrett combined for 61 of the Blue Devils’ 75 points, while Duke shot 55.4 percent overall.
“I’m proud of them. And they’ve never backed down–they’ve never been afraid the whole year,” Krzyzewski said.
Barrett added: “Now that it’s March Madness, every game is kind of going to be like this, close, hard fought games. And we somehow find a way to keep winning at the end. And it’s great. And we’re not surprised by it, but we’ve just got to keep it up.”
For Virginia Tech, the conclusion was a heartbreaking way to finish the most successful season in the school’s recent history. From going 2-16 in ACC play in Williams’ first year to the Sweet 16 four years later, the well-traveled trio of Robinson, Hill, and Outlaw reflected postgame.
“We came here to try to build something as a program with Coach. And I think we kind of changed a lot of guys’ opinion on Virginia Tech,” Hill said. “I thought we did–we played unbelievable and we fought. We just came up short.”
Uncertainty looms for Tech with whispers of Williams’ interest in returning to his home state to take over the Texas A&M Aggies. On Friday night, Williams naturally only wished to discuss the individuals who have helped him in turning the Hokies’ program around.
“I’ve learned so many lessons, incredibly grateful,” Williams said. “Just listening to these guys, I don’t know that I would say anything different. Obviously I think in many respects I’ve learned more from them than maybe they’ve learned from me.”
Image Credits: John Picker/The Georgetown Voice