- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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TAMPA, Fla. -- Almost mercifully, Michigan State’s season-to-forget came to an end Thursday night.
The 10th-seeded Spartans, who were ranked No. 2 in the preseason polls but needed a late-season push just to receive an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, fell to No. 7 seed UCLA 78-76 in a second-round game of the Southeast Regional at St. Pete Times Forum.
Even after finishing the season with a disappointing 19-15 record, the Spartans did the only thing coach Tom Izzo could ask them to do -- they fought to the very end.
After trailing by 23 points with about 8 ½ minutes to go, Michigan State cut UCLA’s lead to 78-76 and had the basketball with 4.4 seconds to go. But senior guard Kalin Lucas was called for traveling while trying to dribble through a triple-team down the sideline, and the Spartans’ improbable comeback was over.
“I’m crushed and disappointed because we just got off to such a poor start, and yet I’m so proud of these guys,” Izzo said. “They’ve been knocked down so many times this year. I don’t think I’ve ever had a team that’s gone through as much, and yet to battle back and almost put themselves at a chance to win was incredible. I’m incredibly grateful to them.”
In the end, though, the Spartans were never able to live up their lofty preseason hype against one of the country’s most difficult schedules.
MSU lost eight of its first 20 games and was plagued by off-court distractions. Guard Chris Allen was dismissed from the team in May and transferred to Iowa State. On Jan. 26, Izzo kicked guard Korie Lucious off the team for an unspecified violation of team rules.
Izzo even ran into his own troubles with the NCAA and was suspended for one game for committing a secondary rules violation.
“It’s been a year that I’ll never forget for a lot of reasons,” Izzo said. “It’s kind of a fitting way to end, because I’ve been telling these guys all year, we’ve just got to keep battling back. Where some people have just fallen off the face of the earth with one of these seasons, we didn’t. I kept telling them we’ve got to be like a boxer and just keep getting up.”
Even a heavyweight like Michigan State endures seasons like this one. The Spartans’ 15 losses are their most in a season since a 16-16 finish in 1995-96, Izzo’s first campaign. The losses also equaled Michigan State's total from their previous two seasons combined.
Izzo said he hurt most for seniors such as Lucas, Durrell Summers and Mike Kebler. After MSU played in the Final Four in each of the previous two seasons, it went one-and-done in their final college season.
Lucas fought back tears while addressing reporters in MSU’s postgame news conference.
“I think I had a great four years here,” Lucas said. “I had a great coach that pushed me every day at practice, and I had great teammates that pushed me every day at practice as well. The loss hurts, but at the same time these four years have been great.”
Lucas, the team’s leading scorer, battled back after rupturing his Achilles’ tendon in the NCAA tournament last season.
UCLA focused much of its defensive attention on Lucas, and he missed his first eight shots. He finished with 11 points on 4-for-14 shooting and had five assists and four turnovers.
“I know it had to be rough for him,” MSU forward Draymond Green said. “I feel like he had a great career, and he hasn’t had many games where he just couldn’t get anything to fall. They did a great job defensively on him. They pretty much keyed on him the whole entire defense, and he did a great job of still getting everybody else involved.”
Lucas finished four points shy of reaching 2,000 points in his career.
“It hurts me,” Green said. “I’m a big fan of my guys reaching milestones, and the loss hurts me, but I think I’m kind of hurting because he came up four points short of 2,000. For everything he did for this program, I get to come back for another year so I can be sad about the loss later. I think I’m hurting more about him not getting them four points.”
Izzo said he won’t remember these seniors by their final campaign. They were part of teams that reached the Sweet 16 in 2008, the national championship game in 2009 and the national semifinals last season.
“I’m proud of all those seniors,” Izzo said. “I hope people look at what they’ve accomplished in their four-year career because it is unbelievable how many games they won and crowds they played in front of and what they’ve done.”