Survive and advance, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo calls it.
His Spartans have been there, done that for decades, which perhaps helped them do it again Saturday night at the Spokane Arena.
After losing all of a double-digit lead and even briefly falling behind late in the game, MSU held off Harvard 80-73 in an epic East subregional game in front of a sellout crowd of 11,623.
“But we found a way to bounce back and win, and so it’s always a better learning experience when you win,” said Izzo, whose fourth-seeded team will face either Virginia or Memphis in a Sweet 16 game on Friday in New York.
The critical moments came in waves for the Spartans (28-8) at the Arena, where 12th-seeded Harvard used a smaller lineup, forced 11 second-half turnovers and still managed to challenge taller MSU in the paint.
With MSU up by one point with 8:24 to play, forward Adreian Payne missed a short jumper, but Harvard couldn’t convert at the other end. Branden Dawson got two of his game-high 26 points on a short jumper to push the lead to 3, but Harvard answered with two free throws by Travis Jonah.
Harvard wasn’t finished. Guard Brandyn Curry stole the ball from Dawson at midcourt, and 5 seconds later Laurent Rivard’s 3-pointer gave the Crimson a 62-60 lead and threatened to make make millions of brackets – from the Oval Office on down – well, academic.
“We knew we had a long way to go,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. “But certainly for us to battle all the way back and grab the lead, that’s when you want to see if they (Spartans) can change things on the other side.”
Challenge accepted. The Spartans found an answer when they needed it most. In the next 90 seconds, backup guard Travis Trice hit his only 3-pointer of the game, Payne hit two free throws and NBA-bound guard Gary Harris drilled another 3 to make it 68-62.
“My teammates set a great screen for me, and I was able to get open and knock down a three,” said Harris, who finished with 18 points and five assists.
Harvard twice cut the Michigan State lead to 4, the last time on Siyani Chambers’ layup with 1:39 left, but the Spartans hit 7 of 8 free throws in the last 48 seconds to seal the victory.
The nailbiting finish contrasted with a freewheeling first half, which saw Michigan State force 11 Harvard turnovers and score 10 points in transition.
Six of those points were slam-dunks by Dawson, who had 20 points by halftime.
“We really got our break going, it felt great,” Trice said.
“That’s where a lot of our highlight-reel plays were coming from.”
The Spartans led by 12 at halftime and by 16 just 2 1/2 minutes into the second half before Harvard began its comeback.
Chambers topped the Crimson with 22 points.