NEW YORK — Since his return from a broken hand in early March, forward Branden Dawson ignited the Michigan State Spartans.
On Friday, he led them to a spot in the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight by scoring 24 points and grabbing 10 rebounds in Michigan State’s 61-59 win over the top-seeded Virginia Cavaliers in the East Regional semifinals at Madison Square Garden.
The fourth-seeded Spartans (29-8) face Connecticut in the regional finals on Sunday.
Dawson averaged 16.2 points and 7.8 rebounds in five postseason games for the Spartans, including the Big Ten tournament. He missed nine games with the injury before returning March 1.
“It was tough on me just watching those guys play,” said Dawson of his time away. “I knew I had to play like a man when I came back.”
He recorded his first double-double since coming back.
Forward Adreian Payne added 16 points for the Spartans. Payne and Dawson accounted for 11 of the Spartans’ final 15 points of the game.
Payne’s two free throws with 33 seconds to go put the Spartans ahead 58-54 before guard Travis Trice sank two from the line for a 60-56 Spartans lead.
Cavaliers guard Malcolm Brogdon hit a 3-pointer with 1.4 seconds left.
Brogdon and Harris led the Cavaliers with 17 points apiece.
Payne drilled a 3-pointer to put the Spartans ahead 54-51 and a Dawson alley-oop made it 56-51 with 53 seconds left to play. Virginia guard Justin Anderson’s 3-pointer from the right corner tied the game at 51 with 1:42 to play.
“These two guys (Payne and Dawson) both shot well from the line and rebounded well,” said Spartans coach Tom Izzo. “To Branden’s credit, I think he’s gotten better since he came back.”
Payne was 4-for-4 from the line and Dawson finished 6-for-8.
The Spartans went five minutes without scoring until a Dawson dunk with 13:27 to play drew Michigan State to within two points at 36-34. That was the start of an 11-4 run that gave the Spartans a 43-40 edge with 9:18 to play.
“(Branden) Dawson presents a challenge because he’s versatile and he plays through contact,” said Brogdon. “He’s able to get to the rim.”
Michigan State led throughout the majority of the first half. A dunk by the Spartans’ Gary Harris and a jumper from Dawson broke a 27-all tie with 1:07 to go, giving Michigan State a 31-27 lead at the break.
Virginia trailed 23-13 with 9:01 left in the half, then went on a 7-0 run to cut the Spartans lead to 23-20 with 6:13 remaining. Harris scored five of those points.
“I told the guys not to hang their heads,” said Virginia coach Tony Bennett. “Dawson was the difference. He created matchup problems.”
NOTES: Virginia is making its first Sweet 16 appearance since 1995. … The Cavaliers rank first in the country in scoring defense at 55.5 ppg. … Coach Tom Izzo has led Michigan State to six Final Fours, including the 2000 national championship. This is Izzo’s sixth team to reach the round of 16 in the last seven years. … The East Regional games are the first NCAA Tournament games played at Madison Square Garden since 1961. … The last meeting between the two schools ended in an 82-75 Michigan State win in 2002. … This is the fourth time in school history that Virginia is a No. 1 seed (1981, 1982 and 1983). … The Cavaliers finished first in the ACC in field-goal percentage (.386) and rebounding margin (6.2). … Going into the East Regional semifinal, the Cavaliers had held 23 straight teams below 50 percent shooting from the field.
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