On Friday night, Branden Dawson did it again.
Michigan State's top rebounder (8.3 per game despite missing nine games in the regular season to a broken hand) proved his worth again and was the only Spartan to record double digits in the rebound column with 10 during MSU's tough battle with top-seeded Virginia.
Michigan State, despite starting out very strong on offense and defense, faltered a bit in the second half and had to battle against the Cavaliers, eventually winning an extremely physical match up 61-59 when the final buzzer rang. Dawson, who was all over both ends of the court, also recorded 24 points in the victory, nearly matching his impressive effort against Harvard in the Round of 32.
Though he had a lot of help, Dawson knew he had to step up in the effort to help his team elevate to their eighth Elite Eight under Izzo. It sure did look like he missed being in the action for those nine games at the end of the regular season to injury.
"It was tough, being out for those nine games," Dawson said. "For me, just making the bad decision that I made, I learned from it a lot. That didn't stop me from coming in and working hard, and I think that being out for those nine games, I just told myself that my team needs me, and I just need to step up and be a man. And that's what I did."
Part of the help Dawson received came from star junior Adreian Payne, who was double-teamed all night long, but still found a way to provide his team with 14 big points and some key plays in the paint. Virginia has one of the country's best defensive units, but it was the Spartans who ended up turning the defensive tables upon their opponent in this year's Sweet 16 match up.
"I think I definitely have to credit their defense," Cavs player Malcolm Brogdon said. "They have a lot of good athletes. They contest shots. But we also missed some easy layups inside for sure. But I can't take away from their defense."
Near the final few minutes, it was a back-and-forth between both teams for scoring streaks, with Michigan State able to come up with some key stops and great plays on offense to take control when it was all said and done. MSU head coach Tom Izzo knew this was the toughest game for his team yet, and gave Virginia a lot of credit for their play coming out of the half, but also thought his Spartans stepped it up when the effort was really needed.
"I thought the start of the second half, I think we had five turnovers in the first six, seven minutes," Izzo said. "They looked like they were really running. They were cranking that offense up. ... I give our guys a lot of credit."
Michigan State now moves on to play No. 7 Connecticut, who took down a blazing offense in No. 3 Iowa State earlier in the night. The teams will meet in the Elite Eight on Sunday to decide who will move on to the Final Four.
You can follow writer, Michael Ferro, at twitter.com/MichaelFerro.