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DETROIT -- Magic Johnson, 30 years removed from the national title he won as a Michigan State sophomore, strode up a ramp toward the Ford Field locker rooms on Saturday night, with the Spartans' 82-73 Final Four win over UConn freshly in the books. He was greeted by a group of Detroit policemen, and one of them stepped forward and summed up the collective sentiments of this downtrodden city, which has rallied around the home-state team and desperately wants its NCAA tournament joyride to end with a national title. "A little bit longer!" the cop said. "A little bit longer!"
"One more," a smiling Magic replied, and inside the Spartans' locker room, he told the team the same thing: "One more game. Don't lose focus. We've done nothing but advance to the championship -- that's all we've done. We've got one more game."
But when Magic was outside, with a few members of the press, he had confided a different feeling: "This seems," he said, "like a team of destiny."
Michigan State did not come into this Final Four regarded as the best team (that would be North Carolina) or the team with the most NBA players (UNC again), but the Spartans are something else: The right team, in the right place, peaking at the right time. A crowd of 72,456 packed Ford Field on Saturday -- a record number for an NCAA tournament game -- and, as Spartans' freshman Korie Lucious said, "it felt like 50,000 of them were for us." He wasn't exaggerating. This Final Four feels like Michigan State's event. When the buzzer sounded on their victory over the Huskies, flush-bulbs popped from all over the stadium, and the Spartans acknowledged not just the section behind their bench, but did a mini-victory lap, with senior guard Travis Walton popping the "State" on his green away jersey toward the far corners of the building. Walton, who had eight assists with zero turnovers and helped lock down UConn's backcourt, said, "For that one second, I could see that we were giving people hope, that they weren't thinking about any problems they were having."
This feel-good weekend in the city with an auto industry in disrepair, and an unemployment rate at 12 percent, came at the expense of the Huskies' national-title dreams. Coach Jim Calhoun said of the crowd, "It didn't affect us. I think it affected [Michigan State]." It roared as the Spartans took a 9-2 lead to start the game, it buoyed them when UConn went on a 6-0 run to start the second half and take a 42-38 lead; it went into a frenzy as the Spartans rallied back and led by 10 with seven minutes left; it pleaded with them to hang on when the Huskies cut it to 74-71 with just over a minute on the clock. It created an electricity that the past three Final Fours -- in Indianapolis, Atlanta and San Antonio -- lacked, and it created what Johnson would call "an unbelievable scene."
"It was the greatest college game that I've ever seen, or been a part of," said Magic. The whole state should pat themselves on the back. ... To the NCAA, thank you for allowing the game to be here in Michigan. They didn't have to do this."
On the drive to Saturday's game, the Spartans' bus took a route through Detroit, Izzo said, "by some tough homes, some tough places," and reminded his players that they had a chance to make the crowd feel good about them. He calls the Spartans "the blue-collar team" of this Final Four, and this, he says, "is the blue-collar city."
The blue-collar performance they put on included matching UConn in the rebounding war, 42-42, and winning the steals column 11-5. It included Raymar Morgan scoring 18 points and grabbing nine rebounds while wearing a mask to protect his broken nose. It included them going toe-to-toe with the bigger Huskies in a couple of tussles, including a major one with 1:55 left in the first half that began when the 190-pound Walton delivered a hard foul on 243-pound Jeff Adrien. Izzo had brought in a couple of football coaches -- ex-Lions coach Steve Mariucci and Vikings line coach Pat Morris -- to remind his team that the war with UConn would be like a football game. And Izzo knew, he said, that "we weren't going to back down from anybody."
Spartan sophomores Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers, the two Detroit natives in the starting lineup, had the most on the line. While Izzo was recruiting them in 2006, one of his prime selling points was that they could play together in Detroit -- at a Final Four just 91 miles from State's East Lansing campus -- in 2009. They said they didn't necessarily believe him at the time; and there were certain times this year when it was difficult to believe that it would actually happen. Their 98-63 loss to North Carolina on Dec. 3, which coincidentally happened at Ford Field, was one of them. Their uncharacteristic home losses to Northwestern and Penn State in Big Ten play were two others. But in the NCAA tournament they went on a tear, beating Kansas, the defending champ, in the Sweet 16; Louisville, the No. 1 overall seed, in the Elite Eight; and UConn, a No. 1 seed that had routed Louisville earlier in the year, in the national semifinals.
On the biggest stage of his young career, Lucas, the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year, played like the best guard on the floor and scored a game-high 21 points. All season he'd been announced as hailing from Sterling Heights, Mich., but on Saturday he changed it to Detroit -- because he had lived periodically at his grandmother's house, two minutes away from Ford Field.
Summers grew up near the Detroit Mercy campus, and said that everywhere he's been in the city this week, "It's been nothing but love. ... And we're trying to embrace the love and go and win it for them." The loving gesture he provided on Saturday came in the form of the game's biggest highlight, a fastbreak dunk over UConn's Stanley Robinson with 5:51 left in the second half. It made the score 66-56 in State's favor, and was particularly demoralizing because of the way it unfolded: Morgan stole a weak pass Hasheem Thabeet tried to make out of the post, and fired it up to a streaking Summers, who raced to the other end. Only Robinson was in his way, and, Summers said, "I tried to probe into him a little bit, and he backed up .. .and I just tried to explode as high as I could, and I was able to make it."
He made it, all right -- by dunking in Robinson's face before they both tumbled to the floor. Walton, who was looking on from the bench in front of the play, said, "That was nasty. I had to give an ugly face to it" -- and he stopped here to make one -- "because it was so nasty."
The most curious thing the NCAA did here at Ford Field was put microphones on the rims, and amplify the sound of every missed shot (a clank!) and swish (a pop!) so it could be heard in the distant reaches of the upper deck. The noises were almost cartoonishly loud courtside, though, and Summers' slam was a unique aural experience -- a jarring ker-clunk! that punctuated the fastbreak. The noise he said he remembered most, though, was of the crowd. "I fell on the ground, and all I heard was a huge roar," he said. "And then [I heard] coach, saying get up and get back."
Summers admitted to taking one peek at the jumbotron, just to see how he'd pulled it off. As he looked up at the video, so did nearly everyone else in the green-drenched Ford Field stands, and they roared upon seeing it again, as a city of fans blissfully caught up in the moment.