Michigan State returns to defensive roots, stifles USC star to advance

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The second consecutive 3-pointer in lower than a minute prompted USC head coach Andy Enfield to name timeout, the referee’s whistle granting star level guard Boogie Ellis a merciful reprieve. Ellis, the Trojans’ main scorer, gasped for air on the other finish of the courtroom — chest heaving, breath wheezing, shoulders drooping — as the gathering of stools the place his teammates sat appeared so shut and, but, so agonizingly far. He staggered into Enfield’s huddle lengthy after everybody else and pounded his chair in frustration.

This kind of fatigue was uncommon for Ellis, an 18-point-per-game scorer whose common climbed north of 20 over his final 12 outings, a first-team all-conference performer within the Pac-12. Nearly 17 minutes elapsed earlier than he scored his first level in opposition to seventh-seeded Michigan State on Friday. His streak of 16 consecutive video games with not less than one 3-pointer was shattered after three off-target heaves. The solely group that restricted Ellis to fewer factors than the measly six he mustered on 3-for-12 capturing was Cal State Fullerton, on Dec. 7, in a sport the Trojans received anyway.

“They did a good job,” Ellis stated within the postgame information convention. “I let my teammates down today. I didn’t make shots. And they made things tough for me. Just team defense, jumping to the ball. Being on all the gaps, pretty much.” 

“They” was a reference to Michigan State’s pair of sticky, cussed and suffocating guards — Tyson Walker and Jaden Akins — who disrupted Ellis from the opening possession till the second he obtained his fifth foul, with 33 seconds remaining within the second half, at which level he lastly escaped their clutches via the agony of disqualification. Ellis shrouded himself in a towel alongside the bench because the clock melted towards elimination, towards a 72-62 defeat. He yanked it from his head to his shoulders whereas commiserating with a teammate. He was nonetheless sporting it when head coach Tom Izzo briefly stopped him within the handshake line for some kindhearted comfort.

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Izzo had spoken glowingly about Ellis throughout his pregame information convention on Thursday, and he would accomplish that once more after a victory that despatched Michigan State to the Round of 32 for a second consecutive 12 months. He acknowledged how harmful a quick-shifting, volume-shooting guard might be for a gaggle of Spartans whose protection was withering down the stretch. Large chunks of his media classes in latest weeks have been spent pleading along with his group to exert extra effort, extra depth on that finish of the ground. A protracted sizzling streak from past the arc might solely paper over the issue for therefore lengthy, and ultimately Michigan State would want a substitute for merely outshooting its defensive shortcomings.

“No secret that I haven’t been pleased with our defense,” Izzo quipped after the sport.

But in opposition to a USC group that completed third within the Pac-12 standings, Izzo’s springiest and most athletic guards answered the decision with startling aggression because the Spartans “got our mojo back,” as Izzo later described it. The successful components in opposition to the Trojans was nearer to what Michigan State can resemble at its peak: a guard-oriented group that defends with zeal and makes well timed 3-point photographs, as energy ahead Joey Hauser did by capturing 4-for-6 from past the arc on Friday. A balanced scoring effort produced 5 gamers in double figures at one finish of the ground, and the spirited protection pressured USC to commit 11 turnovers on a day the Spartans solely gave it away seven occasions.

The undersized Walker hooked up himself to USC’s star past the 3-point line and masterfully slid his toes to counter the flashy isolation drives by Ellis, who hoisted greater than 13 photographs per sport this season as the focus of Enfield’s offense. Every perimeter jumper was challenged, each drive to the basket walled off and flummoxed because the 6-foot-3, 185-pound Ellis wanted aerial contortions simply to fling the ball towards the rim. When it was Akins’ flip, his vacuum-sealed protection pressured Ellis right into a double-clutch fadeaway from the baseline that hardly grazed the rim.

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Together, Walker and Akins guarded with a relentlessness that ripped breath from the lungs of a participant accustomed to logging 33.1 minutes per sport. Each drive Ellis tried, each sliver of house he sought to create additional drained a battery that expired nicely earlier than the ultimate buzzer. With 1:42 remaining, Ellis’ mouth gaped as he positioned palms on head to extra rapidly regain his wind. Then Ellis doubled over and grabbed a fistful of shorts in both hand.

Moments later, after Ellis misfired from past the arc, Izzo huddled along with his snarling guards throughout a stoppage in play. He pulled their heads near his in an intimate embrace amongst rivals, a fire-spewing coach expressing admiration for some unflinching defensive venom.

“We knew coming into the game he can really score the ball,” Walker stated. “Makes tough shots. Just tried to make every shot he took tough. Keep your hand up, no fouling, no reaching because he’s really crafty with the ball. He plays with it. Just trying to lock in and just play solid defense. And we did a good job. Every shot he took was contested.”

Fatigue seeped from Ellis within the locker room shortly thereafter, the easy act of eradicating his sneakers remodeling into essentially the most arduous of duties. He untied each footwear however might solely muster the power to take away one in every of them. Seconds turned to minutes as Ellis remained immobile in his group’s cramped and sullen house — one shoe on, one shoe off, towel nonetheless cloaking his head, look perpetually lowered. 

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When phrase got here that it was USC’s flip on the dais, Ellis labored to his toes and ambled via the tunnels at Nationwide Arena. He sunk right into a chair within the media holding space whereas Izzo completed a postgame information convention.

“These guys, especially these two guards, the job they did was incredible,” Izzo stated of Walker and Akins, who sat beside him on the dais. “We haven’t played against many guards as good as Ellis.” 

But throughout the corridor, Ellis positioned each palms over his ears whereas three Trojans waited their flip. He could not hear what Izzo stated because the towel pressed deeper and deeper into his pores and skin. 

Michael Cohen covers school soccer and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Cohen13. 

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