INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Denzel Valentine’s start to the Final Four was the stuff of dreams — three quick 3-pointers and an early lead for Michigan State.
He spent the rest of the night looking at a wall of white jerseys.
Valentine finished with 22 points, but the Spartans fell flat after that bright beginning, losing 81-61 to Duke in Saturday night’s national semifinal.
After looking so comfortable early on, Michigan State ended up shooting only 40 percent for the game. The Spartans missed 10 of their last 11 shots in the first half, a stretch they couldn’t afford against the favored Blue Devils.
Michigan State’s run to the Final Four as a No. 7 seed was built on tough defense and timely outside shooting, with Valentine and Travis Trice leading the way. There was never that much offensive balance — and there was none on Saturday.
Trice scored 16 points and Branden Dawson added 12, but Dawson shot only 5 of 12 from the field and was Michigan State’s only real offensive threat inside.
Matt Costello scored six points for Michigan State, and nobody else had more than two.
The Spartans (27-12) could not have asked for a much better start offensively. Valentine made two quick 3s, then Trice added one and Valentine made another. Michigan State led 14-6 and was showing no sign of nerves. A couple of Spartans slapped the floor on defense — a gesture Duke helped popularize years ago, but one Michigan State has become fond of.
It turned out that early advantage was the high point for the Spartans. For the rest of the half, the Blue Devils always seemed to have an extra defender ready to cut off Valentine and Trice on the perimeter, practically daring anyone else on Michigan State’s team to make a significant contribution.
With about a minute left in the half, Valentine was knocked to the floor near midcourt and got up limping. He played on, but by then that early groove he and his teammates were in was long gone.
While the Spartans struggled offensively, they had nobody who could match up well inside with Duke star Jahlil Okafor at the other end. And they couldn’t keep the Blue Devils (34-4) off the foul line. Duke went 27 of 37 on free throws, and Dawson, Costello and Gavin Schilling were all in foul trouble down the stretch.
So Michigan State’s season ended in the national semifinals, and the Spartans looked very much like the underdog at a Final Four that included them and three No. 1 seeds.
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