In his seven previous meetings with North Carolina since Roy Williams took over as head coach of the Tar Heels, Tom Izzo had not won a single time.
Only once in those seven games did Michigan State even manage to lose by fewer than 10 points.
Izzo finally secured a small measure of revenge against Williams on Sunday night thanks to Michigan State’s finest defensive performance of the season so far. Fourth-ranked Michigan State held ninth-ranked North Carolina to its lowest shooting percentage in program history and cruised to a 63-45 victory in the title game of the PK80 Invitational’s Victory Bracket.
A Tar Heels team that entered play averaging 92.8 points per game scored less than half that because it could scarcely generate a clean look at the basket. Michigan State thwarted North Carolina’s vaunted transition attack by sprinting back on defense and took the Tar Heels out of their rhythm in their half-court attack by defending aggressively without fouling on the perimeter and contesting everything around the rim.
Preseason All-American Joel Berry scored a season-low seven points because he could not get a jump shot to fall, nor could he make a layup through the thicket of long-armed Spartans defenders. Top big man Luke Maye also struggled, overwhelmed by the superior length and athleticism of Michigan State’s interior defense.
North Carolina shot 24.6 percent from the field and 1-for-18 from 3-point range. So spooked were the Tar Heels by Michigan State’s defense that Kenny Williams at one point rushed a wide-open transition layup and botched it as a result.
Sunday’s resounding victory solidified Michigan State as one of the nation’s elite teams despite a disappointing loss to Duke 12 days ago. The top-ranked Blue Devils lost stud freshman Marvin Bagley to an eye injury 10 minutes into the game, yet still managed to overtake the Spartans behind a career game from Grayson Allen.
That loss highlighted Izzo’s struggles against Tobacco Road’s blue bloods. He fell to a combined 1-18 against Krzyzewski and Williams at Duke and North Carolina.
The history against Williams was especially bleak. Izzo had lost on land and on sea, in November and in March, while ranked No. 1 and while facing No. 1. The seven previous losses had come by an average of 16.4 points per game.
While it was Michigan State’s defense deserves most of the credit for ending that streak, Izzo also benefited from a timely breakout performance from shooting guard Josh Langford. On a night when national player of the year candidate Miles Bridges and potential lottery pick Jaren Jackson both got into early foul trouble and never found a rhythm, Langford erupted for 23 points including five threes.
Michigan State opened a 17-point lead late in the first half and expanded it to as many as 21. The Spartans were never seriously challenged despite committing 23 turnovers, including four apiece from Cassius Winston and Nick Ward.
Even though North Carolina lost its top three frontcourt players from last year’s national title team and had Cameron Johnson go down with an injury, the Tar Heels had been awfully impressive in rolling up a 5-0 record entering play Sunday night.
Credit Michigan State for making North Carolina look ordinary, for capturing one of the strongest early-season tournaments and for helping its coach finally achieve something he had never done before.
– – – – – – –