By Skip Myslenski
NUsports.com Special Contributor
Every game features a maelstrom of swirling bodies, a kaleidoscope of flailing limbs, a torrent of plays made and plays missed and plays that bring viewers from their seats in various states of disbelief. They comprise the oversized portrait that is finally stored in the mind, but in that whole there are also moments of significance, moments to be recounted, moments like those that arrived just over three minutes into the 'Cats Saturday afternoon upset of No. 6 Michigan State.
They were already down five now and then point Dave Sobolewski missed a three from the left wing. The Spartans, of course, are renowned for their rebounding, are clearly the best rebounding team in the Big Ten, but here 'Cat center Davide Curletti collected his teammate's miss, got fouled and made a pair. He is back at it again some five minutes later and with their deficit again five, this time outmuscling a pair of Spartans for an offensive rebound that he puts back for an easy two. Now, on the next 'Cat possession, he finds Drew Crawford for a back door layup, and then there he is at the top of the circle offering and draining a three.
rebounds, they took them from us and scored three different times," Spartan
coach Tom Izzo would later say. "I thought each time, we had a six, seven-point
lead, get a rebound, they took it, laid it up. One time they get a three-point
play on it. That became the difference in the game. Give Curletti credit. I thought
he played extremely well. He outplayed our centers and that's been something
we've been pretty solid on. Curletti was the difference in the game, if you ask
me. He was a big difference in the game and deserves the credit he got. He did
a great job."
The Spartans rolled into Welsh-Ryan unbeaten since mid-November and riding a winning streak that had reached 15. The 'Cats, in stark contrast, were not only coming off a pair of enervating defeats. They were also bruised and battered and beaten up. Sophomore guard JerShon Cobb, who had undergone off-season hip surgery, had pain in that left hip and was sidelined. Senior guard Alex Marcotullio, who had been hobbled all season with a bad toe, was cleared to play, but no one knew just how long he could last. Then there was Crawford, the dynamic junior. He had been felled by a stomach flu, had sat out Friday's practice, and had suited up only after getting IVs that night and again on Saturday morning.
Bill Carmody, their coach, had planned to open small against the Spartans, using John Shurna at center and surrounding him with Crawford, Marcotullio, Sobolewski and Reggie Hearn. But, noting the uncertain health in that lineup, he made a late change in his plans, inserting Curletti and keeping Marcotullio on the bench. "Just before the game," the center would say when asked just when he learned he would be starting.
Did that get him jacked up?
"I try to be the energy guy whenever I can," he said, "so not really."
Carmody made a pair of other decisions before the game that would also prove fruitful. On defense, he decided, his 'Cats would go exclusively to their 1-3-1 zone in an attempt to slow down the speedy Spartans. "The main thing was stopping them in transition since they have so many fast guards," Crawford would later explain. "Once we were able to stop them in transition, that's where they've very tough, we're confident in our zone. We were able to slow them down a little bit, which really helped us out."
Then, on offense, his 'Cats would look always for those back-door cuts that might burn the Spartans' aggressive defenders. "All I noticed (on film), I thought their defense was playing you harder, they were playing the ball harder. So there was that possibility," Carmody would explain. "They've always been a good defensive team. But just on tape, we saw they are overplaying a lot. You never know. But we did get some easy ones there."
"Maybe. Maybe," said Izzo, whose Spartans have young guards (and a senior transfer from Valparaiso playing his first season in the Big Ten). "But the truth of it is, we made sure in three days of practice that we were not overplaying anything. It's just, staying focused as a freshman, it's hard. Remember I said the perimeter guys, the lack of experience there is going to catch us sometimes. It caught us today a little bit."
Curletti's histrionics saved the 'Cats early, when their offense struggled some, but what followed was a textbook exhibition of what is meant by the term Team Victory. Marcotullio would play the up-top chaser in the zone through much of the first half and then, in its final two minutes, hit one three that tied the game at 33 and another that put the 'Cats up two. They would never trail again, but Marcotullio himself was now done for the day. "I think he got conked or something like that," Carmody would say. "They just told me he's not feeling that good and that he's not available this (second) half."
Hearn, who would play all of that half's 20 minutes, would go five-of-six from the field and end with 10 points and five rebounds. Sobolewski, the freshman point, would play all of the game's 40 minutes and commit just one turnover while handing out seven assists. Crawford, who played just 11 minutes in the first half but 18 in the second, finished with 20 points, and Shurna played all 40 and put up 22. "I knew I was going to play the whole time. The question was how much energy I would have," Crawford would say. "But once the game started and I see Davide working hard, I see my teammates working hard, it kind of fuels you and gets you going."
Then there was Curletti, who had never before logged more than 28 minutes in a game. He here played 36 and finished with 17 points and six rebounds and four important assists. "Our Energizer bunny," Carmody would call him.
"It is fun when you play well like that," said the bunny himself. "Helping other guys is a great feeling, especially for us. Our offense is built around each other, making back door cuts, making back door passes. I felt tonight, we were hitting on all cylinders. We rarely broke out of our offense. We were able to run it to perfection."
"We didn't lose that game on the offensive end. We lost it on the defensive end," Izzo would later say, supporting Curletti's claim. "We're not allowed to give up 81 points. It's ridiculous."
The 'Cats, through the final 20 minutes, slowly built on their two-point halftime lead, built it to 10 with 10:40 remaining, built it to 12 with 6:45 remaining. But still, lurking in the brainpan, were memories of their late failures against Illinois and Michigan, memories that were suddenly stirred as the Spartans now rallied and cut that deficit to just five in a mere 68 seconds. "We just had to stop their run," Crawford would later say when asked about this moment. "Basketball is a game of runs and Michigan State's a very tough team. They're capable of making runs and that's where you've just got to be strong and keep your composure as a team and get back to what you do."
What the 'Cats did here was put the ball in Shurna's hands, and what Shurna did now was masterly. He passed up an open jumper early in the shot clock and then, as it wound down, he drove hard down the lane, got fouled and made a pair. The Spartans responded with a basket of their own, but now the young Sobolewski exhibited the smarts of a veteran, exhibited them by himself driving as the shot clock wound down and getting fouled and making a pair. This time the Spartans responded with an air ball and now here came Shurna, once more late in the shot clock and off a pass from Hearn, burying an NBA three that put the 'Cats up 10 and closed this one out.
"We told them at
halftime you just can't be competing," Carmody later said, and then he offered
this most salient of points. "You've got to take the game. You've got to be the
aggressor. You've got to go after it a little harder. I really thought they
Tom Izzo, whose honesty matches his coaching acumen, said this in his opening statement after his team lost for the first time since Nov. 15. "I had a couple concerns all week in preparing for these guys. The first one was I thought they were a much better team (than their record). I thought they could have won the Michigan game and the Illinois game, and if they were 13-3 everyone would have been talking about this being an incredible matchup. When you lose a game or two, it matters in the standings, it matters to the fans and the media and everybody else. But, to another coach, it doesn't matter because it means you played extremely well for probably 39 minutes in those games and lost in the last minute. So how you played was important, so I knew they were a very good team."
Then later, at the end of an answer to a question about Curletti, he offered this. "Like I said, we weren't good enough," he offered. "But they were really good. Don't knock Northwestern. Northwestern did a hell of a job."