NEW YORK — Tom Izzo predicted a dogfight; his Michigan State players were prepared for it, mentally and physically.
And still, the swings of Friday night's game against Virginia were so great, the bruising so bad, the emotions so high; it surpassed even their own expectations.
"To be honest, I think it was more," junior guard Travis Trice said.
More what? More physically demanding than they thought possible? More mentally draining? More rewarding?
All of the above?
BOX SCORE: Virginia, Michigan State
MARCH MADNESS: NCAA tournament bracket
By the end of it all, No. 4 seed Michigan State had outlasted No. 1 Virginia 61-59, the final buzzer sounding after Friday turned into Saturday at Madison Square Garden. After a short turnaround, the Spartans will face Connecticut Sunday afternoon in the Elite Eight.
But before these Michigan State players think about the Huskies or being on the cusp of the program's seventh Final Four under Izzo, they'll all collectively exhale. And probably get a good night's sleep.
"It took a lot out of us," sophomore guard Denzel Valentine said. "That was a sigh of relief right there. It seemed like it was three hours, that game."
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That's what it feels like when neither team takes a possession off. And when you jump out to a 23-13 lead only to give up a 10-0 Cavs run.
That's what it feels like when Virginia's defense is so flawless to open the second half that it takes more than six minutes to make a field goal.
That's what it feels like when you chase Virginia players around all night as they set textbook screens and cut and sprint and wear you down on both ends. And when you are forced to truly claw back into the game, finally taking the lead for good on an Adreian Payne three-pointer with 89 seconds left in the game.
"That was one of the toughest games I've played in," Izzo said. "Every possession mattered. That is hard to play, mentally, that sharp.
"We didn't look as poised as I would have liked, but when you can go down and then get back up … it shows we've got some character, some heart."
In many ways, that game was a metaphor for this season. The Spartans were hit by a seemingly endless barrage of injuries and illnesses, forcing Izzo to cobble together various lineups for the better part of three months.
He'd spent his preseason speaking publicly about his team being Final Four-caliber; for most of the season, he made excuses for why it didn't look that way.
But in the last six games, it has looked every bit the part. During this stretch, Michigan State has held all but one opponent to 41% or worse from the field. Izzo characterized his team's halfcourt defense against Virginia on Friday was "unbelievable."
Each time Virginia made a run, Michigan State answered. Like it had all season, the Spartans took the punches — and fought back.
"Survive and advance was during the year, not the NCAA tournament," Izzo said. 'The players did a heck of a job hanging in there through that time. We were switching things and changing things. They had to put up with a lot, too.
"And the rewards are here."
He pointed to his defense. All week, it had been overshadowed by the vaunted pack-line defense of Virginia. All week, it hadn't been given its due.
On Friday, it was every bit as good as Virginia's.
"I guess we're not a bad defensive team, either," Izzo said, with a smirk. "That's a big plus for us. That's getting back to who we are."
Said Virginia guard Joe Harris: "They're similar to us in that they do a good job outlasting teams, really staying mentally locked in and focused throughout the course of the game and not letting any kind of run get them too high or too low …
"It seemed like anything we would do, when we'd get something rolling, Michigan State could counter or they'd make a big bucket or hit a big play. But that's what great teams do, that's what great players do."
And that's what Final Four teams do.
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