Detroit As his Michigan State teammates hustled downcourt, Kalin Lucas looked around at a stadium ablaze in green and white, turned on his megawatt smile and raised both his arms.
No worries, he seemed to be saying, we’ve got you.
Carrying an entire state knocked down by the economic crisis is a lot to ask of a group of college kids, but the Spartans are proving they’re more than up to the task.
“It means so much, so much,” said Magic Johnson, who sat just a few rows behind the Michigan State bench Saturday night. “It’s been all bad news the last couple of years.”
It’s nothing but good news now. Lucas scored 21 points, Raymar Morgan broke out of his late-season slump with 18 and nine rebounds, and the smaller Spartans ran roughshod over Hasheem Thabeet and Connecticut in an 82-73 upset in the Final Four on Saturday night.
The Spartans (31-6) now will play North Carolina for the NCAA title Monday night, giving the city and state at least two more days to forget all the bad news and revel in their Spartans’ success.
It’s Michigan State’s first appearance in the title game since 2000, when the Spartans won their second title.
“One thing we talked about is bringing hope to the city for a whole weekend,” said Travis Walton, who dished out eight assists. “People forgetting about their problems, forgetting about what they’re going through, just focusing on us and focusing on Michigan State.
“From the moment we were on that court and we won that game, people didn’t think about what they was going through outside of this. They was just happy that we won and they can continue to cheer for us on Monday.”
How’s this for some karma? Johnson, Spartan-in-chief since leading Michigan State to its first title in 1979, will present the game ball before Monday’s title game along with Larry Bird.
“I hope we were a ray of sunshine, a distraction for them, a diversion, anything else we can be,” coach Tom Izzo said. “We’re not done yet, so hopefully we can continue to make them feel a little better and us feel a lot better.”
The loss is the latest blow for UConn, the best team in the country until Jerome Dyson went down with a knee injury in mid-February. The Huskies (31-5) have been dealing with distractions since last May, when coach Jim Calhoun was diagnosed with his third bout with cancer, and are now facing questions about alleged recruiting violations.
The loss snapped Calhoun and Connecticut’s perfect run in the Final Four. They’d made it twice before — 1999 and 2004 — and went on to win the title each time.
UConn cut an 11-point deficit to four in 49 seconds, getting within three with a minute to go. But the outcome was never really in doubt. Durrell Summers, a Detroit native who experienced firsthand the hardships his city and state are enduring when both parents were laid off, converted a three-point play to put the game out of reach.
Flashbulbs popped throughout the arena as the final seconds ticked down. After huddling at midcourt, the Spartans walked to the edge of the floor and saluted the Final Four-record crowd of 72,456, about two-thirds of which was pulling for Michigan State.
“It was a memorable game that I won’t forget,” Izzo said. “Except we’ve got another one.”
The UConn players walked slowly off the court, looking shell-shocked that their season had ended. Thabeet left with a towel draped over his face.
“I’ve got a lot of kids in there crying right now,” Calhoun said. “But they had a great season. It hasn’t been that easy to stay focused the past few weeks. But I give (Izzo) a great deal of credit.”