Michigan State advances past Harvard, but plays like an also-ran

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SPOKANE, Wash. -- This is how Michigan State almost gagged on a hairball the size of Flint.

Tom Izzo's bunch treated a 16-point second-half lead like it was counting calories. Oh, no more for me, please. I'm watching my weight.

The Spartans let a more determined Harvard come all the way back and more, taking 62-60 lead with 7:11 left in an East Region Round of 32 game.

It was disturbing how the Spartans backed off the accelerator: Standing around, being outhustled. Branden Dawson (20) had a career high in the first half. Apparently, he and the Spartans checked out mentally early to celebrate that fact. As good as Michigan State was in the first half, scoring 45 points with only one turnover, it was just as shaky in the second -- committing 10 turnovers.

Keith Appling. I'm being kind here: He didn't show up -- 22 minutes, two points, no field goals, four fouls. This from the Big Ten's No. 3 assist man.

As the lead melted away, an aggressive Harvard cheering section began to sing Columbus, Ohio's favorite song, "We don't give a damn about the whole state of Michigan ..."

Misplaced, maybe -- the song normally is aimed at Michigan -- but you get the point. Michigan State is going to the Sweet 16 again, but the Crimson won the Neosporin Award for being Crimson by the end. They led the game in floor burns.

Wake up call or harbinger for one of the tournament favorites? We'll have to rule out a choke after the Spartans secured an 80-73 win. But that's all it was - a result. Michigan State had the better, bigger, faster athletes and finally flexed enough in the end to take it home.

Sparty survived Smarty.

"We showed some people we had the heart of a champion," said Wesley Saunders, Harvard's leading scorer.

What this means for the immediate future of MSU hoops is a product of the wit and wisdom of Jim Valvano. Survive and advance.

Izzo will take these lessons to Madison Square Garden next week where the Spartans will play in the Sweet 16 against Sunday's Virginia-Memphis winner.

You would like to think Michigan State won't be distracted again like this. It's human nature to see "Harvard" on a jersey and let down if you're a Big Ten battleship.

"We dug ourselves a hole tonight," Dawson said. "We got comfortable with our lead."

The No. 4 seed is a fair reflection of an injury-laden February but nowhere near an indicator of the potential of the current full roster.

"If it was broke," Izzo said, reacting to Dawson going down during the game. "I'd say, 'You're still playing.' I'm sick of these injuries."

When you win, you can celebrate a Dawson. The guard once called the most entertaining player in the Big Ten ended with 26 and nine rebounds. Combined with Adreian Payne (41 in the opener against Delaware), the Spartans had two players go for career highs this week.

But with the season on the brink Saturday, Izzo had to try everything he could. Call timeouts. Go small. Point to both temples, the international signal for "Think!"

There's every reason, of course, to believe the Spartans could blow through the bracket after this. Every national champion seems to have a story like this to tell - how it was all almost lost in an instant.

Izzo was philosophical. This is his 12th Sweet 16 in 17 seasons, sixth in the last seven years. Yawn?

"I never keep track," he said. "Those kind of things are for retirement and I don't plan on doing that right now, or in the near future."

Not with this team paying full attention.

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