NEW YORK -- It wasn't Branden Dawson's fault that Michigan State lost six of 10 games in the middle of conference play, but it's hard not to think of him as a catalyst.
Michigan State was 18-1 when Dawson punched a training table out of frustration, breaking a bone in his hand and missing nine games as a result. The Spartans went into a tailspin with Dawson sidelined, going 4-5 in his absence -- and then dropping two of three to end the regular season when he returned and had to be worked back into the rotation.
Since then, though, Michigan State hasn't lost -- winning its sixth in a row on Friday night, beating Virginia 61-59 to advance to the Elite Eight.
"Being out for those nine games, I think it was tough on me because just watching those guys play each and every night," 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."
For the second straight game, Dawson dominated, finishing with 24 points and 10 rebounds. He was the biggest matchup problem for Virginia, especially with the Cavaliers focusing on Adreian Payne. He had eight points in the first 11 minutes of the game, helping Michigan State open up a 10-point lead. But as Virginia responded and began to take control of the game, the Spartans were struggling for an answer.
Once again, Dawson stepped up.
Dawson kept the Spartans in the game at a time when the Cavs seemed to have captured the momentum -- he scored all of MSU's second-half points until a dunk by Adreian Payne at the 10:29 mark. On the assist? Branden Dawson.
With Keith Appling still struggling on the offensive end, and Gary Harris and Denzel Valentine going cold from the perimeter against Virginia's defense, Dawson had to step up and be a difference-maker.
Despite standing just 6-foot-6, Dawson was absolutely relentless on the glass, crashing the boards for tip-ins and put-backs, while also corralling shots at the other end. He was aggressive when facing up in the paint against Mike Tobey and Anthony Gill, using his strength and athleticism to finish against the bigger UVA post players. Dawson also consistently drew contact and got to the free-throw line. Simply put, he was a matchup issue for Virginia all night.
"I think Dawson presented a challenge because he's very versatile," Virginia guard Malcolm Brogdon said. "He can move, he has great body control when he gets in the air. He was able to finish in a lot of different types of ways."
"I don't know if we underestimated him or what, but he got going early and was able to get on the glass and get in front of the rim," Virginia forward Akil Mitchell added.
He is also playing his best basketball at the right time, scoring in double-figures in each of Michigan State's six straight wins. The junior has 50 points on a scorching 21 of 31 shooting (67.7 percent) in his last two games, and is averaging 20.0 points and 9.0 rebounds in three NCAA Tournament games. This follows a Big Ten tournament run that saw Dawson put up 15.0 points and 7.3 rebounds in three wins.
"He worked hard when he was out," head coach Tom Izzo said. "I think sometimes adversity or a slap in the face or whatever you want to call it, sooner or later you got to put up or shut up. And Branden's credit, he really has gotten better. But I swear to you, I think he's got a long way to go yet. But that's the exciting part for me."
Much like his injury wasn't the only reason for Michigan State's midseason struggles, Dawson isn't the only reason for the Spartans' postseason successes.
But he's certainly a catalyst.