Out of all the teams to make it to the 2015 Final Four, none was more unlikely than the Michigan State Spartans. They entered this year’s tournament as the No. 7 seed in the East Region, and no one really expected them to do much damage. But if history has taught us anything, it’s that you should never count out the Spartans come March.
This is a program that manages to play its best ball on the biggest stage. They are blue collar tough, tenacious, and focused. The Michigan State Spartans know who they are and they stay true to their roots. There is a lot of history associated with this storied program. Through ups and downs, failures and defeats, the Spartans have managed to cement their place among the most elite basketball schools in the land. In honor of their historical run to this year’s Final Four, here’s a look at the five most memorable moments in Michigan State basketball history.
5. Adreian Payne and Lacey Holsworth form an unlikely friendship
Forward Adreian Payne forged a lasting legacy at Michigan State that won’t soon be forgotten. In an age of the “one and done,” Payne played four seasons for the Spartans and had a monster senior year where he averaged 16.4 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. And yet, that’s not what he’ll be remembered for most. Payne made his mark when he formed an unlikely bond with 8-year-old cancer patient Lacey Holsworth.
After meeting at Sparrow Hospital, their friendship evolved into something greater: family. She would refer to him as her big brother and Payne would be a regular presence in Holsworth’s life as she battled neuroblastoma. He had her accompany him on Senior Night and she even helped him cut down the nets when Michigan State won the Big Ten tournament title. Even after the disease took her life, Payne would honor “Princess Lacey” during the 2014 NBA Draft by wearing a suit that referenced their special friendship. This moment was about more than just basketball. It was about life and the impact people can make on each other. And that’s why it stands out among the rest.
4. Quicken Loans Carrier Classic on 11-11-11
In honor of Veterans Day, the Michigan State Spartans and North Carolina Tar Heels played their November 11, 2011 game on the USS Carl Vinson in the inaugural Quicken Loans Carrier Classic. Not only was this the first-ever contest played on an aircraft carrier, but it took place in front of fans, various members of our armed forces, and President Barack Obama and the first lady.
In the end, the No. 1 Tar Heels would defeat the Spartans by a score of 67-55, but the outcome of the game wasn’t as important as honoring our military. When the president addressed the crowd prior to the tip-off he said, “We want to make sure you understand how much we appreciate what you do, not just on Veterans Day, but every day of the year.” This was a special evening for all parties involved.
3. Tom Izzo reaches his first Final Four
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo has now made it to seven Final Fours in his illustrious career. And while all of these appearances are special in their own right, you can never forget the first. For Izzo, it all started on March 21, 1999.
The Spartans were the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Region and they came across the defending national champion Kentucky Wildcats with a trip to the Final Four on the line. Michigan State found themselves down 36-35 at the break, but had no intention of leaving the dance early. Behind 19 points and 10 rebounds from lefty sharpshooter Morris Peterson, the Spartans would overwhelm the Wildcats in the second half on their way to a 73-66 win. For the first time since 1979, Michigan State was headed to the Final Four. Who could’ve guessed this would become such a common occurrence?
2. Mateen Cleaves leads the Spartans to the title in 2000
For the second straight season, Michigan State would advance to the Final Four. But unlike the previous year, where the Spartans came up short in the national semifinals, the 1999-00 team would not be denied. Led by point guard Mateen Cleaves, the first-seeded Spartans defeated the fifth-seeded Florida Gators by a score of 89-76. This win marked the second national championship in school history. After all the hard work it took to bring the program back into the spotlight, the Michigan State Spartans were finally back on top.
1. Magic defeats Bird in the 1979 National Championship game
Before they began to duke it out in one of the greatest rivalries in NBA history, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird met in the 1979 National Championship game. In a contest that ended up being a bit underwhelming, Johnson’s Spartans would defeat Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores by a score of 75-64. But the game itself was secondary to the beauty and anticipation that led up to it. This matchup was the first real taste of March Madness. Today, the NCAA tournament is one of the biggest sporting events on the planet, but back then it wasn’t anything special. On March 24, 1979, the world of college basketball changed forever. Magic and Bird were the two legends who made it all possible.