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March 18, 2011TAMPA, Fla. - Kalin Lucas probably wondered a few times what it would be like to play his last college basketball game. He dreamed, maybe assumed, it would be glorious. But when it came time to stop and feel it, Thursday night, somewhere in Florida, the devastation was staggering.
He was still processing the emotional pain when they herded him to the podium for post-game interviews. He'd been in front of microphones like these at the NCAA Tournament a dozen times before. But never with the weight of finality that overcame him at this moment.
The first question was directed at Kalin. It was fair, and pointed. "With the hot streak you have gone on in the last 14 games, what was going through your head in the first 30 minutes of this game when you couldn't get anything to fall?"
In other words: Why did you play so bad?
Lucas swallowed hard. Nudged up toward the microphone. Started to talk, and he couldn't. His eyes watered heavily, he tried again, and stopped. And he looked at Draymond Green sitting next to him, shook his head no.
"I can't ...." Lucas told Green.
"He can't talk," Green told the press conference moderator.
Lucas figured his last college game would take place in Houston, at the 2011 Final Four. There would be more victories and legendary moments in his fourth NCAA Tournament.
That's how he visualized it during the hundreds of hours of rehabilitation in the spring and summer, when coming back from the ruptured Achilles tendon which sidelined him in the second round of the NCAA Tournament last year.
"Now that it's over, if you know what that kid went through since that injury in that Maryland game, it's been an unbelievable year, un-believable," said Tom Izzo.
Through the off-season, Lucas battled the hour glass. Coaches, trainers and doctors tried to accelerate the process. In April, they told Lucas and Izzo, that if he worked his tail off, maybe he could get back close to full speed by December. Lucas set out to beat the deadlines.
"He worked as hard as anyone I've ever had," Izzo said.
He didn't begin getting his speed back until late January. "And that was as fast as anyone has ever come back from that injury," Izzo said. "He will become the model for coming back from that." But then he suffered two more sprained ankles. Every time he seemed to be getting back to All-America standards, he'd get tripped up.
A couple of days ago, Lucas watched the Michigan State vs. UConn game from the 2009 Final Four at Ford Field for the first time in a long, long time. What he saw on the screen amazed him.
"Man, we really pushed it fast back then, didn't we," Lucas texted to Izzo.
But he never reached that speed again.
'Can I Add Something?'
A few minutes after being unable to answer the first question, Lucas gathered himself and reflected on his time at Michigan State.
"I think I had a great four years here," he said. "I had a great coach that pushed me every day at practice, and I had great teammates that pushed me every day at practice, as well. The loss hurts, but you know, at the same time these four years have been great."
It included two Final Fours, a Sweet 16, and now a one-and-done.
"Can I add something?" Green said. "I just want to add something to it. Playing with Kalin has made me a much better player, just his heart, everything about him.
"I think when I came in as a freshman, nobody expected me to be nothing. He was one of the guys telling me, 'Just keep on going hard, and one day you're going to start feeling it. It's going to start to feel like high school all over again. You're going to do what you want to do out there on the court.'
"My freshman year things didn't go right for me," Green continued. "I didn't play as much as I wanted to at the beginning and things were just rocky. But he was one of the guys that just stayed there, with him being one of the leaders of our team at that point.
"It's been great to play with him. The last couple years, a lot of people have labeled me as a winner, but along with that winning, he's done a lot of it for me just helping me out and pulling this team along. And like I said to him in the locker room, I want to thank him for all the great times he gave me here as a player."
Lucas and Green stepped down from the podium, walked behind a blue curtain and down the carpeted hallway of the St. Pete Times Forum, and into the Spartan locker room. They saw Mike Kebler sobbing into a towel.
Lucas sat on a stool next to his locker, trying to manage his despair, and answered questions on live Detroit television.
"It hurts," he said. "My main goal was to get back to Houston.
"Me and Durrell, we put the time in, we worked hard ..."
For Lucas, at Michigan State, hard work always paid off with Regional championships, net-cutting ceremonies, and a shot at winning the National Championship.
Instead, this year Michigan State is one of 32 teams that will lose during this two-day period of what they now call the "second round" of the NCAA Tournament. Some of those 32 will remember their one-game ride in the NCAA Tournament as an accomplishment of a lifetime.
For Lucas, this was the lowest moment of his athletic career.
There was a tear on his cheek and a drop of blood on his calf when he answered questions for the last time in a Michigan State jersey. The pain of the loss was compounded by the frustration of knowing he played poorly for three quarters of it.
Lucas missed his first nine shots. When Malcolm Lee stole the ball from him and converted a lay-up at the other end, it was 60-39. This thing was over. Thousands left the arena.
There was a derisive cheer from some Michigan State fans when he finally broke the drought with a lay-up, which cut the lead to 64-45 with 7:44 to play.
This kid's college career and his dream were dying in a nightmare, and some people in Spartan gear practically made fun of him.
But Lucas scored 11 points in the final seven and a half minutes - a pace of about 58 points over 40 minutes if he had been this sharp from the outset.
His 3-pointer cut it to 64-51 with 5:57 left. An 18-footer cut it to 69-61 with 3:40 remaining. And another 3-pointer off the dribble cut it to 76-69 with 1:03 left.
But his last two shots missed. One was a free throw, which could have cut it to 76-74 with :40 seconds left.
The other was the half-court heave, which was negated by a traveling violation.
"I was just trying to hurry up and get the ball out of (Adreian Payne's) hands," Lucas said.
Still battling the hour glass.
"And when he did give it to me, it was probably just momentum so I probably did travel," Lucas said.
He didn't question the officials for that call. And he blamed himself for the poor start.
"I thought I had great shots in the first half," Lucas said, "and they just didn't go in. Some were in and out. I missed a lay-up here and there. They were trying to double me, so I had to get my teammates involved. I had seven or eight shots and they just didn't fall.
"One thing I can say, we did fight. We got down 20 and it wasn't like we weren't going to keep competing. We kept going to war."
"The second half," Izzo said. "We went to some more things that kept him with the ball. I thought he was more aggressive and did it both ways, made a couple of shots and made a couple of great assists and put the pressure on them. And sometimes because they did such a good job on him, shacking those ball screens and coming off of them and almost doubling him sometimes. Other guys had some open looks, but they played it right. And we were lucky to come back, we really were.
"But there was a little more energy in our step, and I don't know why it didn't start out that way. We practiced well. I just think we're about as mentally spent as any team in America or any team I've ever had."
For The Last Time
This game was too much like the entire season. In several games this year, the Spartans came back from big deficits, in a short amount of time, sometimes to win, in Houdini fashion, like against Wisconsin, Northwestern and Indiana. And Washington. Heck, they even had to come back to beat Chaminade.
They were getting beaten, and their season on the brink of disaster, when the Spartans somehow rallied and won at Minnesota on Feb 22. They were down 7 midway through the second half against Iowa last week in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. Lose, and the Spartans would have been most-likely headed to the NIT. With their heels on the edge of a cliff, they fought off of it and survived to compete for another day.
"Never plan on having another season like it, never want to have another one like it," Izzo said. "And I don't mean that in a total negative way, but that's been a hard year on a senior to go through what he went through."
As they survived and prolonged the season, they became healthier. This team that finished the season with an ugly 19-15 record went into this NCAA Tournament believing that they would get out of the first weekend and the second and go to the Final Four. That's just how they do things. They had a bad record, but they had the confidence of a 25-5 team, entering this tournament, with everyone 0-0 again. Maybe they were wrong to be so confident. Maybe it's better to be a little scared, more urgent.
"There is no magic wand," Izzo said. "The wand is work."
That will be the mantra in the off-season. And it needed to be the objective in the first 10 minutes of this loss to UCLA, during which the Bruins out-hustled, out-worked the Spartans.
"I think that's one thing Ben Howland has done at UCLA, he's taken smash-mouth basketball to the west coast," Izzo said. "I think they out-rebounded us bad in the first half, they got every loose ball."
UCLA coach Ben Howland said the first half was the best his team played all year. That's how teams bring it when they know they are going to face the Michigan State jersey. The Spartans may have underestimated this dynamic, and did not have their guard up when the bell rang.
"We didn't run the ball like I wanted to," Izzo said. "That was one of our big game plans, to run, but again, we looked mentally sluggish. Trust me, I'm one guy that knows some of the reasons why, but it was a team that we needed to be in all gears. We just didn't have enough firepower left, and to dig a hole like that and bounce back is almost incredible, considering the lack of numbers of scorers we have after dismissing two (from the team)."
Yet, here came the comeback. Down 23 freaking points with only eight and a half minutes to go, Team Rasputin was it again. And again. And again. And you didn't stop watching, because something in the back of your mind told you that if any team could rally from this hole, it was Michigan State, this year.
Although they were never a very good team this year, they still had this psychological edge, these survival instincts, that would kick in for them, right on time, just long enough to stay alive.
And it kicked in again on Thursday night. But they came up just short of glory and more history.
Lucas may wonder what would have happened if he had gotten that last outlet pass a few beats sooner. Or what would have happened if UCLA had made that free throw and given the Spartans a chance to launch a clean in-bound pass farther downcourt, with four seconds to cover ground before attempting a better look from 3-point range to tie the game.
"It hit me that this is my last time ever wearing this jersey," Lucas said. "Guys are sad. But they have this summer. They have to work hard in the weight room and try to get back to the Final Four."
Many Hall of Fame coaches chased the Final Four for 15, 20 years, and won 500-plus games along the way, and never made the Final Four. But at Michigan State, it has become the annual goal. And if you merely make the NCAA Tournament for a 14th straight season, yet lose by 2 points in the second round, you cry.
Those are healthy expectations.
"Keith Appling, and A.P. and them," Lucas said, offering advice, "just grind. Keith is going to have the ball in his hands next year. Grind all summer. A.P, get in that weight room."
They'll do it without Kalin Lucas. Lucas will make money in pro ball next year, somewhere, maybe on this continent, maybe not. His greatest, most famous moments might be behind him. He may never again enjoy basketball as much as he did at Michigan State. And he knows it.
Playing basketball at Michigan State is probably the one thing he enjoys more than anything in life. But after four years in the NCAA, they don't let you do it anymore. And they make you quit after your last defeat.
When the cameras turned toward other people and their lights no longer shined on him, Lucas rolled the green Spartan jersey up his back and over his head, and held it in his hands, and looked at it for a moment. Then he tossed it into a giant duffle bag in the middle or the room. It will be carted off to a laundry facility somewhere. And that's it. He'll never wear it again.