NEW YORK — Michigan State turned the defensive tables on Virginia and the Spartans advanced to the Elite Eight, putting them back in a place where they have had a lot of success.
Branden Dawson had 24 points and 10 rebounds and the Spartans forced top-seeded Virginia into a terrible shooting performance in a 61-59 victory Friday night to advance to East Regional final of the NCAA tournament.
The fourth-seeded Spartans (29-8) will play Connecticut (29-8) on Sunday with a Final Four berth at stake. The seventh-seeded Huskies beat third-seeded Iowa State 81-76 earlier Friday.
Michigan State overcame a horrible start to the second half and then withstood a late run by the Cavaliers (30-7) to advance to the regional finals for the eighth time since 1999 — all under coach Tom Izzo. The Spartans have a 6-1 record in those games and in 2000 they went on to win it all.
Joe Harris and Malcolm Brogdon both had 17 points for Virginia, which became the second No. 1 seed to be eliminated, joining Wichita State.
Adreian Payne had 16 points for Michigan State and his 3-pointer with 1:29 left gave the Spartans the lead for good at 54-51. After a miss by Brogdon, the 6-foot-10 Payne turned point guard, finding Dawson with a line drive lob pass for a dunk with 52 seconds to go.
Harris hit a 3 with 39 seconds left to bring the Cavaliers within 56-54.
Payne found another way to help the Spartans, making two free throws with 32 seconds left for a 58-54 lead.
Brogdon hit a 3 with 1.1 seconds left to bring Virginia within 60-59. Gary Harris made one of two free throws to make it 61-59 and Virginia’s last attempt was well off the mark.
Michigan State came up with the kind of defensive effort that Virginia is known for. The Spartans held the Cavaliers to 35.1 percent shooting (20 of 57), well off the 45.7 percent they shot during the season and nowhere near the 54.3 percent they shot in the two NCAA tournament games.
“I think I definitely have to credit their defense,” Brogdon said. “They have a lot of good athletes. They contest shots. But we also missed some easy layups inside for sure. But I can’t take away from their defense.”
Dawson, who averages 11.0 points per game, has scored in double figures in six straight games and he had a career-high 26 points in the third-round win over Harvard. He missed nine games this season with a broken right hand, an injury he inflicted on himself when he hit a table while watching film.
“It was tough, being out for those nine games,” Dawson said. “For me, just making the bad decision that I made, I learned from it a lot. That didn’t stop me from coming in and working hard, and I think that being out for those nine games, I just told myself that my team needs me, and I just need to step up and be a man. And that’s what I did.”
Izzo called Dawson “a freak athlete,” both in strength and athletic ability.
“He’s not been a very good shooter. He’s worked hard on it,” Izzo said. “I told him God might have taken his hand when he broke it, but he gave him a jump shot when he returned, because he’s a lot better shooter.”
Payne missed seven games with a right foot sprain and Gary Harris and Keith Appling were bothered most of the season with nagging injuries. Since the Big Ten tournament started and the Spartans didn’t have much trouble winning it, everyone has been healthy.
“They have experience and they are a physical team. I think they’re playing the best ball,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “Dawson makes all the difference; he did today. He was a matchup problem for us.”
Michigan State started the second half by missing seven of its first eight shots and committing five turnovers. Virginia took advantage to turn a 31-27 halftime deficit into a 38-34 lead.
“I thought the start of the second half I think we had five turnovers in the first six, seven minutes,” Izzo said. “They looked like they were really running. They were cranking that offense up. … I give our guys a lot of credit.”
The Spartans went on a 13-2 run to go up 49-42 with 6:10 to go.
Virginia, the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season and tournament champions, answered with a 7-0 run to tie the game at 51 with 1:51 left and then Payne accounted for Michigan State’s next seven points.
Michigan State shot 44.7 percent from the field (21 for 47) and was able to score just over the 55.5 Virginia had allowed all season in leading the nation in that statistic.
The Spartans, who started the season 18-1 and spent three weeks at No. 1 in the AP Top 25, shot 52.3 percent in their last four games.
“It’s life,” Bennett said of the loss that ends the season for the Cavaliers and the careers of seniors Harris, Akil Mitchell and Brogdon. “We had so many good things happen this year. Unbelievable things. This is part of it.”
These were the first NCAA tournament games played at Madison Square Garden since 1961.