EAST LANSING, Mich. – With the game tied and 1.5 seconds remaining in regulation, Michigan State point guard Robert Ray Jr. stepped to the free-throw line with two chances – barring a last-second heave – to send the his club team to the national championship.
Both attempts rolled off the rim, and the Spartans fell to East Carolina, 58-55, in overtime. A day later, ECU cut down the nets for a second straight year after defeating Ohio State in the 2016 national final at La Roche College in Pittsburgh.
“It was definitely a tough loss to accept, especially since we weren’t used to losing,” MSU senior Thacker Hisey said of the Spartans, who finished 20-5 in their first season as a club program. “We didn’t play our game, and I think we let them control the tempo, which really hurt us.”
The Pirates were a better-conditioned, more athletic team than the Spartans played all season, and MSU coach Sean Hankins noted that as a reason his team was a bit out of sync.
“I think they had a different style than we’ve played before,” Hankins said of the Pirates, who held the Spartans to just 37 percent shooting. “We missed a lot of shots that we normally wouldn’t miss. We lost a couple of possessions, when normally we’re really good at taking care of the ball.
“But at the end of the day, for us to be in the position we were in, that was incredible. And that’s all you ask for as a team – to be in the game at the end of the game.”
The next steps
The Final Four loss was a wake-up call of sorts for MSU, which is losing several players to graduation but also returning a handful of key contributors.
The first-year club came within inches of playing for it all, so the next step for the Spartans seems like a makeable one. But falling short of the ultimate goal – a championship – has Hankins ready to aggressively attack the offseason.
“It was a great lesson for us in the future as far as us getting better conditioned for those types of battles,” Hankins said of the semifinal loss. “(A championship) gives us something to strive for. It gives us some things we want to address over the summer. We’re definitely going to get in the weight room (and) get some things going conditioning-wise.”
Hankins felt his team ran out of steam down the stretch, partly due to lingering injuries. The intense offseason ahead, he hopes, will prevent endurance and health struggles next season.
The returning players know the bar is set high.
“It was our first year. I didn’t really know what to expect, none of the guys really knew what to expect,” sophomore center David Henry said. “So getting to the Final Four is definitely impressive and definitely sets a standard for the years to come.”
And the motivation to raise the bar next season?
“Unfinished business,” Hankins said.
A special bond
Prior to tipoff of the semifinal, Hisey sat on the bench while the starting lineups were announced. In that moment, checkpoints of a journey he never knew he’d go on became vivid.
“I looked over and saw all the friends I made freshman year when I was a young and naïve freshman walking into IM East trying to make friends,” he said. “It was cool to think we were in Pittsburgh as a part of the club basketball team we started. And it was cool to think about the journey we’ve had, and I think that says a lot about us as individuals and a lot about MSU as a school.”
It’s a bond that formed in fall 2012, when the rest of the team’s senior class was just like Hisey, going to the gym in search reliable pick-up teammates – who eventually would become friends.
It’s a bond that was strengthened through Hankins’ mentorship, which led to the formation of a culture – one of winning and class.
It’s a bond that’s evident in the fluidity of their ball movement and their post-practice clowning. What will they remember most when looking back on the season?
“Definitely the laughs,” Hisey said.