Adreian Payne uses career-high 29-point night to propel Michigan State to convincing 96-77 win over Virginia Tech at Barclays Center. (Photo courtesy of the Detroit Free Press)
The No. 1 team in the country lived up to the hype, and then some, taking over Brooklyn's Barclays Center with a commanding performance that; especially on recent nights, would probably be good enough to defeat the arena's permanent residents.
Fueled by a career night from senior forward Adreian Payne, Michigan State (5-0) made short work of their first of three appearances in the Big Apple, convincingly knocking off Virginia Tech in a 96-77 rout whose final score was much closer than the game, a Coaches vs. Cancer Classic semifinal in which the Hokies trailed by 30 at one point, let on. The Spartans will face Oklahoma in tonight's championship game after the Sooners' dramatic comeback win guided them past Seton Hall in the front end of last night's twin bill.
"I'm getting real proud of this kid," Tom Izzo said of Payne after his 29-point, 10-rebound performance in which his 6-10 big man set a career high scoring total, "because he's starting to play within himself. He's really efficient now."
Payne was not the only efficient Spartan, as his fellow senior classmate Keith Appling was as well, finishing with 13 points and seven assists on a night where the point guard did not commit a single turnover. Adam Smith led Virginia Tech with 27 points, while Jarell Eddie chipped in with 23 of his own. Two more Michigan State players joined Payne and Appling in double figures, as Gary Harris poured in 19 points while Branden Dawson posted a quiet 12-point, 10-rebound double-double.
The star of the evening, however, was Payne, the projected lottery pick from a team who; if last night was any indication, could end up in the national championship game next April.
"He's the perfect example of it being okay to stay in school and get better," Izzo said with regard to Payne's continued development over his career in East Lansing. "I know we appreciate freshmen, but we should start to appreciate guys that stay around and get better."
Payne and Appling, along with walk-on Dan Chapman, are playing with somewhat of a chip on their shoulder as it relates to the Michigan State program. Since replacing Jud Heathcote at the helm of the Spartans in 1995, Izzo has never had a four-year player of his not play in a Final Four. This year's senior class has yet to get there, having lost to UCLA in the round of 64 three years ago before consecutive Sweet 16 exits to Louisville and Duke, respectively.
Despite last night's comfortable margin of victory, the man who brought his program its second national championship in school history gave an honest appraisal of his situation after it was over.
"We're still a team in the process of growing," Izzo said. "We show some flashes of greatness and some flashes of inadequacies."
One would be hard pressed to find the latter last night.