SPOKANE, Wash. — For 18 seconds, it was happening. Harvard owned basketball, too.
Laurent Rivard made a 3-pointer from the corner, flashed his 3-point goggles toward an unhinged group of Crimson fans and ran down the court. The Ivy Leaguers had overcome a 16-point deficit to take a two-point lead over a Michigan State team that always comes up big at March Madness.
The next time down the court, Travis Trice came back with a 3 to put the Spartans back in the lead. A few minutes later, Michigan State was out of danger — not by much, though — on the way to an 80-73 victory that put basketball back in a more familiar, but arguably less-scintillating orbit.
Led by a career-high 26 points from Branden Dawson, the fourth-seeded Spartans (28-8) moved onto the Sweet 16 for the 12th time in the last 17 seasons. They’ll play Virginia or Memphis next Friday at Madison Square Garden.
Nobody will ever take Harvard hoops lightly again, and Michigan State certainly wasn’t doing that in this entertaining, back-and-forth adrenaline-fest.
Over a span of 7 minutes, 31 seconds, Harvard (28-5) didn’t just whittle away at the 16-point deficit, they wailed away at it.
The comeback started with a pair of 3-pointers by Brandyn Curry and continued relentlessly. Harvard, coming off the second tournament win in school history two nights earlier, grabbed almost every loose ball, kept hands in Michigan State’s flustered faces. Steve Moundou-Missi, the 6-foot-7 forward who was supposed to contain Michigan State’s 6-10 power player, Adreian Payne, simply outplayed him.
When he tipped in a missed shot with 10:22 left, Harvard trailed only 55-53 and the chant ringing from the Harvard stands — “I believe that we will win” — sounded like more than good PR.
Michigan State called a timeout but Tom Izzo’s play produced an offensive foul. Moundou-Missi missed a layup, but Wesley Saunders, who led the Crimson with 22 points, scrambled for a loose ball and dunked to tie it.
About 90 seconds later, Rivard hit his 3 to put Harvard ahead 62-60.
That, somehow, seemed to calm the Spartans.
After Trice put them in the lead, Rivard missed a 25-footer — part of a 2-for-5, seven-point night in which he was more or less shut down by Gary Harris. Payne came back with two free throws and Harris made a 3 of his own, part of an 18-point, five-assist night that merely complemented the great defense.
Payne followed his career-high, 41-point night with a modest 12 points, but the final lesson in this one was all the ways Michigan State can beat you.
Dawson had matched his previous career best of 20 by halftime. When he took a pass from Trice for a layup, he gave the Spartans a 73-67 lead with 1:54 left.
Harvard pulled within four and Moundou-Missi blocked Keith Appling’s shot on the other end. But the Spartans won a scramble for the ball and Crimson coach Tommy Amaker stomped his foot and shouted “Dammit.”
The game was pretty much over by then and both teams had proven a point: Harvard is here to stay and Michigan State can handle a legit challenge.