ANDREW ELKADI ‘23 (HE/HIM), SPORTS CO-EDITOR
“It was a hell of a basketball game … It was a little bit of a rollercoaster but that’s a hell of a team we beat,” Michigan State Spartans Head Coach Tom Izzo remarked in his post-game press conference following his team’s 74-73 victory over the Davidson Wildcats in the first round of the 2022 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. The contest saw eight lead changes and eleven ties as the two squads fought for the opportunity to face off against Coach K’s Duke Blue Devils in the second round.
The game was hotly contested from the outset, with Michigan State jumping out to an early 8-2 lead before the Wildcats responded with an 8-2 run of their own to tie it up. A second foul early in the first half by Davidson’s Luka Brajkovic ‘22 kept him on the sideline until the start of the second half, but other pieces stepped up in the A10 Player of the Year’s absence. Sam Mennenga ‘24 stayed hot from beyond the arc and was also a menace inside. Grant Huffman ‘24 was flying across the floor blocking shots and intercepting passes. Davidson’s corps of skilled offensive players was able to hit key shots and keep pace with their power conference foe as Brajkovic watched from the bench–the ‘Cats trailed by 1 at the half.
With Brajkovic back on the floor in the second half, Davidson looked to him often when they needed a bucket. Brajkovic didn’t miss a single 2-point shot in the second half. He made scoring in the post against Spartans 7-footer Marcus Bingham Jr. look easy and, with the shot clock running down midway through the second half, hit a memorable shot just inside the arc to put Davidson up 52- 49. On Davidson’s effectiveness inside, Izzo explained, “We didn’t cover the post as well [as Davidson’s outside game], but it was kind of what we were trying to do, we were making sure we were running guys off threes because that’s the way they seem to beat most people.” Davidson’s typical three-point assassins were held in check and kept below their season scoring averages–Foster Loyer ‘24 made just 1 three and scored 12 points, Hyunjung Lee ‘23 scored 11, and Michael Jones ‘22 was kept to just 8 points.
With just under 7 minutes to go in regulation, Brajkovic grabbed an offensive rebound following a missed Mennenga free throw, gathered himself and put in a layup to extend Davidson’s lead to 56-51. Michigan State scored the game’s next 10 points. Davidson Head Coach Bob McKillop reflected after the game, “They got into transition… I think [that spurt] was the critical juncture of the game.” Michigan State’s lead ballooned to 8 in the final minutes; Davidson was able to hit shots late to cut the lead to 1 but it was not enough. Brajkovic spoke on the team’s mentality during his final game in a Wildcat jersey: “We always thought we were right there until the last second, I always believed we can win this game … it’s hard, we really gave everything on the court, we played so hard, and it just sucks to see that we can’t play another game anymore – that’s the last game this team will play.”
Post-game, a disappointed McKillop was proud of his squad’s tenacity throughout the course of the game, saying, “I’m heartbroken for our guys, we got into the center of the ring and we fought, we got knocked down a few times but we stayed in the center ring and kept fighting, we just ran out of time, I could not be more proud of our guys.” Mennenga echoed McKillop’s words, “I thought that we fought throughout the whole game… we always believed. A couple plays at the end didn’t go our way and that was the game, but I thought we did such a great job of fighting.”
With the game being held in Greenville, SC, just 2 hours from Davidson’s campus, many in the Davidson community were able to make the trip. Brajkovic commented that the atmosphere created by the fans did not go unnoticed by the players. “The crowd really helped us… it was my first time in the NCAA Tournament so I wasn’t sure how many Davidson people were going to travel, but it was just awesome to see how many fans traveled and every time we made a run and they were loud it was just awesome. [It] gave us so much energy and I can’t even tell you how much we appreciate our fans for traveling, it really means everything.”
Davidson Basketball’s best season this decade ended with an overall record of 27- 7. Thinking back on a season filled with excitement and high-level basketball, Coach McKillop said, “what a joy it’s been to coach them this year… they’ve left me with a treasure chest filled with memories.”