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 sort 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 taking pictures was Cal State Fullerton, on Dec. 7, in a sport the Trojans gained 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 acquired his fifth foul, with 33 seconds remaining within the second half, at which level he lastly escaped their clutches by way of 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 carrying 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 achieve this 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 may very well be for a bunch of Spartans whose protection was withering down the stretch. Large chunks of his media classes in current weeks have been spent pleading along with his group to exert extra effort, extra depth on that finish of the ground. A chronic sizzling streak from past the arc may solely paper over the issue for thus lengthy, and finally Michigan State would wish 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 undersized Walker connected himself to his opponent past the 3-point line and masterfully slid his ft to counter the flashy isolation makes an attempt from Ellis, who hoisted greater than 13 photographs per sport this season. 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 compelled 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 area he sought to create additional drained a battery that expired effectively earlier than the ultimate buzzer. With 1:42 remaining, Ellis’ mouth gaped as he positioned arms on head to extra shortly 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 opponents, 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 straightforward act of eradicating his sneakers reworking into probably the most arduous of duties. He untied each sneakers however may solely muster the energy to take away considered one of them. Seconds turned to minutes as Ellis remained immobile in his group’s cramped and sullen area — 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 ft and ambled by way of 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 arms 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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