March Madness – (7) Michigan State vs. (4) Louisville

(7) Michigan State Spartans (-2) vs. (4) Louisville Cardinals

After his No. 4 Louisville Cardinals (27-8, 12-6 ACC) downed No. 8 North Carolina State 75-65 in the East Regional semifinals of the NCAA tournament, head coach Rick Pitino is now 12-1 in Sweet 16 games (including 6-1 with Louisville). Today, Pitino will find himself squaring off against another member of the coaching pantheon when the Cardinals face Tom Izzo and the No. 7 Michigan State Spartans (26-11, 12-6 Big Ten) in the Elite Eight (2:20 p.m. Eastern at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse).

On Friday, Pitino relied on bench player Anton Gill to help seal the win over the Wolfpack. Gill nailed a key three-point shot and runner in the lane to put the game out of reach.

“Anton and I had an interesting conversation the other day,” Pitino said. “I said, ‘You’re going to get your opportunity, son.’ He went in and basically won the game for us.”

Said Gill, “It’s kind of weird. I didn’t really realize we were playing NC State. We’ve been so focused on what we need to do as a team. It’s funny how things work.”

Prior to Gill’s late-game heroics, the Cardinals were led by upcoming NBA draft selection Montrezl Harrell, who scored 24 points in the win.

“We don’t want to go home,” said Harrell after the game. “We took our bumps and bruises throughout the season, but we came together at the right time. Everything just jelled at the right time.”

If Harrell and company are going to keep the dream road-trip alive, they’ll have to get by one of the most improved teams in the nation today. The Spartans, who lost three of their first eight games this season and suffered six setbacks in Big Ten play, have now won seven of their last eight after downing No. 3 Oklahoma (62-58) in the Sweet 16.

“I get to work another day,” said Izzo after beating the Sooners. “I can’t tell you how excited that makes me. I’m just tickled to death to still be playing.”

Michigan State’s leading scorer, Travis Trice, came up big in the win, scoring 21 points (including six in the last two minutes), while Denzel Valentine scored 13 of his 18 points in the second half.

“The first half, I felt like that was my first time playing basketball,” Valentine said. “But I just kind of snapped out of it. I was like, ‘I’m in [the] Sweet 16, and we’ve got a chance to go to the Final Four. I’m a junior, what the heck.’ I just smacked the ground and I woke up I guess.”

The Spartans defense is playing tough these days. The team held Virginia to under 30-percent shooting before limiting Oklahoma to 36.4-percent from the floor in the Sweet 16. Meanwhile, the Louisville offense has been connecting at a much higher clip than usual (50-percent from the floor vs. N.C. State vs. 42.9-percent for the season).

Look for the Spartans’ D to bring the Louisville offense back to earth. That’s why Michigan State, laying the points (-2), is the play.

(Photo credit: Bradjward (flickr) []. Photo has been cropped.)

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