By Zach Wagner | @zachwagner22
Sports Capital Journalism Program
INDIANAPOLIS — Three games against Ohio State, three star-studded dominating performances from Michigan State senior and Big Ten Men’s Player of the Year Denzel Valentine. Valentine had 19 points, nine rebounds and eight assists as the second-seeded Spartans defeated No. 7 Ohio State, 81-54, in the quarterfinal round of the Big Ten tournament, all but ending Ohio State’s chances of making the NCAA tournament.
Buckeye coach Thad Matta wasn’t shy in expressing that he believed his young squad got picked apart by, in his estimation, the best player in the country
“I don’t watch a lot of television,” Matta said, “…I don’t know where (Valentine) ranks, in terms of his status in college basketball, but I don’t think there’s anyone better than him. A couple of those passes that he threw tonight, Iike, what are you going to do?”
The Spartans (27-5) advanced to the semifinal round to face No. 3 Maryland (25-7), which defeated Nebraska, 97-86. Saturday’s game will mark Michigan State’s sixth consecutive appearance in the semifinals and its 13th overall.
Michigan State got the better of Maryland at home back on Jan. 23, which helped snap the team’s uncharacteristic three-game losing streak. Bryn Forbes scored 25 points and Valentine had 19 points, 14 rebounds and eight assists that day to lead the Spartans to victory.
With top-seeded Indiana losing earlier on in the day to Michigan, the Spartans now stand as the highest-seeded team left in the tournament. But that didn’t give the Spartans any reason to look ahead.
“All those No. 1 seeds losing, that kind of scares us too, so we had to be ready for that,” said senior center Matt Costello.
Valentine’s performance comes after he recently compiled a total of 44 points, nine rebounds and 21 assists against the Buckeyes in their previous two meetings towards the end of the Big Ten regular-season schedule.
“He was just great against us all year long,” said Ohio State freshman guard JaQuan Lyle, whose 10 points made him the only Buckeye to finish in double figures. “When he’s running the show like that,” Lyle said, “good luck stopping him.”
Trailing 33-26 at halftime, Ohio State saw its limited NCAA tournament hopes slip away over the course of the first 6:23 of the second half when they allowed Ohio State to go on a 16-6 run. Valentine scored five points, with two rebounds and three assists in that span to help expand the Spartan lead to 19.
“That stretch really hurt us, for sure,” said Ohio State junior forward Marc Loving. “After that it was always going to be a struggle to get back in it.”
Michigan State held Ohio State to just 1-for-11 (9 percent) shooting from long distance, their best effort of the season.
By the time the final buzzer had sounded, with their reserves out on the floor, Ohio State was left still searching for any way to slow down Denzel Valentine.
“He’s (Valentine) so diverse in how he can beat you,” said Lyle. “If he’s not scoring the ball, then he’s out there setting up the next shot or leading the break in transition. He’s just an all-around dominating player.”
Even with the lopsided final score and his own gaudy numbers, Valentine reiterated afterwards that he and his teammates were not satisfied.
“We want to win the championship,” said Valentine. “We can’t worry about their feelings and them being desperate. We have to worry about us and how we play.”
His head coach agreed with him.
“This tournament still has a lot of great games left,” said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, who currently holds a 98-42 record and a .700 winning percentage all-time in the month of March. “And I’m excited about it,” Izzo said. “I think we have our work cut out.”
Michigan State, currently ranked as the No. 2 team in the country in the latest Associated Press media poll, has won 11 of 12 games. Over the last seven games, the Spartans are outscoring their opponents by an average of 23 points.
“Being in this league, Big Ten, for 12 years now, I have had the pleasure of coaching some of the best teams that have come through here in 12 years,” said Matta. “And I think that team right there is one of the best that I have seen.”
As the next several weeks play out, Valentine is ready for the challenge of trying to go out on top.
“It’s March Madness time,” said Valentine. “It’s time to play. This is what we have all been waiting for. Postseason. This is time. This is where everybody gets to have great moments and has great memories. So we have things to accomplish, and that was one of our goals.”