MINNEAPOLIS — The last shot Kenny Goins made in his college career was the biggest. It propelled Michigan State into the Final Four, the culmination of improbable rise from walk-on to giant slayer.
Six days after swishing that game-clinching three, the fifth-year senior was rendered ineffective by a Texas Tech defense that moved as one, restricting movement, its grip inversely proportional to the time remaining.
Goins had four chances from beyond the arc. He was robbed of his fifth, one which would have tied the game and continued a ferocious comeback. With 2:17 to play, the forward took a pass and set his sights on the rim, only to be stopped by a whistle.
Cassius Winston, of all people, was called for an illegal screen. The comeback died with a whimper. So too did the Spartans’ season as the Red Raiders secured a place in the national title game, 61-51.
“Now it’s not the happiest of places to be but you have to move on eventually,” Goins said. “Right now I’m just going to let this hurt and hopefully learn from it.”
Learning through setback. It’s something this team, a vintage Tom Izzo variety, is intimately familiar with. Adversity and adaptation is the through-line of this season, one which saw Josh Langford — who Xavier Tillman called MSU’s best player — go down with a season-ending injury and Nick Ward miss extended time.
The road to Minneapolis was full of potholes, and yet Michigan State survived them all. The steady hand of Winston drove to a regular season title, conference title, and through Duke.
But he, like everyone else, went off course Saturday night. Winston made only four of his 16 shots and had four turnovers. He tried to do it all and ended up doing less than he normally does.
The track was laid out for Izzo to win his second national championship. Any illusion of an easy ride, however, was put to rest early and often by Texas Tech, which held MSU to 32 percent shooting and 7-of-24 from three. It was put to rest by Tariq Owens doing an Inspector Gadget impression around his own rim and Matt Mooney raining down heat-check threes when no one else on the court could find their offense.
The good thing came to an end before becoming a great thing.
Reflecting on the disappointment in the locker room, Michigan State was stoic but appreciative.
“I’m never going to forget this,” Aaron Henry said. “We get to go home to East Lansing and know that we still have fans that love us and treat us well. We weren’t supposed to make it to the Final Four. We had goals to win a championship and we didn’t do that. But it will never leave me and I’ll make sure it never leaves them.”
“A day goes by, another day opens up for new opportunities,” Kyle Ahrens said.
With the game decided, Izzo pulled McQuaid and Goins then shared a moment with them before each took their place on the bench.
“I think any coach, the relationships they have, their years last four, but the relationships hopefully last 20, 30, 40,” Izzo said.
The departing seniors have their Final Four trip, which has been a rite of passage in East Lansing. They also have what’s become another one: falling short of the ultimate goal.
This team, put simply, cared for each other. And was open with that care, in good times and in bad.
“It’s what we preach,” Ahrens said. “Everyone loves everyone and everyone has each other’s backs. That’s just what we do. After the Illinois loss we stayed a couple hours as a team and that’s when it grew.”
“To be a part of this, on and off the court it’s been a special year,” McQuaid said. “It’s been an honor to be a teammate to all these guys.”
It was a special year. Ask anyone around the program or a fan who enjoyed the unexpected run. It hurts now but will soon be in proper perspective.
“We accomplished way more than expected,” Tillman said. We know what it takes to get this far now. Now we’re able to get back to this point again as long as we put the work in.”
There was no late-game magic. No unlikely hero. There was only the end, less happy than imagined but, at worst, bittersweet.