ST. LOUIS -- The NCAA tournament is when Michigan State shines. Deep runs are expected, national championships realistic.
This year hasn't been a ho-hum ride.
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With everything they've been through, the wild momentum swings of the season, their leader on the bench in a walking boot, the Spartans really enjoyed this win.
Rallying around injured star Kalin Lucas, Michigan State survived a mid-major scare and earned another berth in the round of eight by grinding out a 59-52 victory over pesky Northern Iowa on Friday night in the Midwest Regional.
"That's kind of enjoyable, to find a way," coach Tom Izzo said. "It's somewhat more rewarding than the last two."
Michigan State had it relatively easy during its previous two trips to the regional finals, its deep and talented teams overwhelming opponents along the way.
This year's team had to survive a whack-a-mole-like season filled with winning streaks, injuries, suspensions and benchings. The fifth-seeded Spartans then had to get through a physically demanding game against a Northern Iowa team that had already taken out the biggest favorite in the field.
Michigan State did it with defense and stellar play from its remaining guards.
Korie Lucious played 39 steady minutes in place of Lucas and hit a whirling jumper with 91 seconds left, Durrell Summers had 19 points and the Spartans held the No. 9 seed Panthers to 10 free throws and no field goals over the final 10:21 to send the Heartland heroes home.
Always at their best in the NCAA tournament, the Spartans are one win from a sixth trip to the Final Four in 12 years. They'll play Sunday against sixth-seeded Tennessee, which beat No. 2 Ohio State 76-73 earlier Friday night.
"It feels great to be back," forward Draymond Green said. "We've still got bigger dreams."
The Spartans crushed Northern Iowa's.
The Panthers (30-5) knocked off one college basketball giant but couldn't make it two straight, unable to contain the athletic Spartans for an entire game after stunning top overall seed Kansas in the second round.
Adam Koch had 13 points and Kwadzo Ahelegbe 12 for Northern Iowa, but Ali Farokhmanesh ran out of magic. The early-round star was just 1 for 6 from 3-point range and finished with nine points as the Panthers' deepest run in the NCAA tournament came to a close.
"In some time, they'll have a lot to look back and a lot to be proud of," Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said. "But not yet."
Michigan State, last year's national runner-up, turned the game on defense in the second half, holding the Panthers to five field goals while escaping with a difficult win as Lucas watched from the bench in a walking boot.
Lucious, who beat the buzzer with a game-winning 3 against Maryland in the second round, had the dramatic moment, spinning away from the defense and fading toward the top of the key as his clutch shot swished through. Michigan State held, then Chris Allen followed with a putback with 31 seconds left, putting the Spartans up 57-51 and on their way to the next round.
"At certain times in the game, we just kind of huddled up and said it's winning time," Summers said.
A few years back, maybe this was a mismatch: the powerhouse from the Big Ten against the scrappy mid-major.
Not this year.
Northern Iowa has done its best to shake the underdog tag, reaching the NCAA tournament five of past seven years, moving into the round of 16 this year for the first time with wins over UNLV and Kansas.
Farokhmanesh ran off the Runnin' Rebels with a 3-pointer with 4.9 seconds left in the opening round, then topped it with a no-no-no-great-shot! 3 to take out the Jayhawks. The son of an Iranian Olympic volleyball player, Farokhmanesh has become a folk hero back in Cedar Falls, a Stephen Curry-like sensation to the rest of the country.
Of course, all the Panthers have reached a new level of fame, appearing on magazine covers, with fans from all over jumping aboard the purple-powered bandwagon.
"We've had a lot of support from our fans, from our community and we really appreciate that," Koch said.
Michigan State has been the monument of the bracket under Izzo: 13 straight NCAA tournaments, nine trips to the round of 16, seven to the regional finals, five Final Fours, a national title in 2000.
This season has been a little tougher road.
The latest downturn came in the second round, when Lucas ruptured his Achilles' tendon, leaving the Spartans without their scoring, assists and all-around leader.
Having Allen and forward Delvon Roe hampered by lingering injuries wasn't going to make it any easier.
Northern Iowa took advantage early.
Grinding the game down with their smothering defense, the Panthers got the tempo they wanted: slow-and-not-so-easy.
Koch, previously quiet in the postseason, scored nine quick points and Northern Iowa held the Spartans to 7-of-22 shooting, going into halftime with a 29-22 lead on Ahelegbe's buzzer-beating jumper.
But the Spartans fought back.
Appearing more comfortable against Northern Iowa's swarming man defense, Michigan State hit six of its first seven shots in the second half during an opening 16-5 run, going up 38-34 on Roe's sky-high alley-oop off a sore knee.
Northern Iowa responded in typical fashion, setting up a foul-filled final 7 minutes that Michigan State grinded into another regional final appearance.
"That Final Four, you can finally talk about it," Izzo said. "This is what you play for - at least it's what I play for. It's great when you're working this time of year."