Basketball

Spartans fall 1 game shy of Final Four

NEW YORK (AP) — Keith Appling sat facing the locker room stall he had been assigned in Madison Square Garden.

The senior guard from Michigan State was still in his uniform, a towel draped around his neck that he used to wipe his face every once in a while. It was about 15 minutes after Appling and the Spartans lost 60-54 to Connecticut on Sunday in the East Regional final.

Not only was Appling's season over. His college career was over. And it ended with him scoring two points and committing four of Michigan State's uncharacteristic 16 turnovers. "We were just too casual with the ball," he said in barely a whisper. "A lot of the turnovers came with not being focused enough to where the defender was and just making the pass and that came back to bite us on the rear end at the end of the game."

Appling wasn't in the game at the end because he fouled out with 30 seconds to go. The three free throws Shabazz Napier made after that foul made it 56-51. "To foul out of the last game of your career is painful," he said. "To lose the game, that makes it even worse. It's hard to talk about it right now."

For Appling and fellow senior Adreian Payne their careers end without a Final Four appearance. Hundreds of college players end successful careers every season without reaching the Final Four. At Michigan State it's different.

Since Tom Izzo started his head coaching career at Michigan State with the 1995-96 season, every four-year senior has made at least one trip to the Final Four. The streak is over. He has taken the Spartans to the Final Four six times and they won it all in 2000.

"As the game got closer and closer to ending, it was on my mind a lot, every huddle," Payne said of the streak which was talked about a lot this weekend after the Spartans beat top-seeded Virginia to move within one victory of the Final Four. "And for us losing, and Keith and I not to make it is disappointing."

Payne had 13 points but the 6-foot-10 center spent most of the game away from the basket, finishing 3 of 10 from 3-point range. "They definitely tried to force me out and to take jump shots," he said. " It was just, they did a great job in the post of sending backside help. So it was kind of hard to get the ball down low."

Then Payne talked about the end of the streak. "We were so close to making it to a Final Four," he said. "We didn't play Michigan State basketball. We didn't play our game." Appling and Payne lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament and then lost in the round of 16 the next two years. They were two of the key players in the injury-riddled season that saw them get close, but they won't be going to North Dallas this week.

"You know, that streak doesn't mean anything to me, as dumb as it sounds," Izzo said. "Sometimes you got lucky. There were teams that we went to a Final Four with that weren't as good as some teams we didn't.

"Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you know streaks are made to be broken. It wasn't going to go forever, but it is the players' team, not the coach's team. It's the coach's program but the players' team."

Kevin Ollie is in his second season at Connecticut and he already can appreciate what Izzo has done in his 18 seasons in East Lansing. "With their streak of every senior's been to a Final Four, that's a great streak," he said. "Streaks are made to be broken sometimes. I'm glad UConn broke that streak tonight, but today I have the utmost respect for Michigan State and Tom Izzo, the job he's doing and what he continues to do."

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