ATLANTA - Michigan State understands why everyone rallied behind Gonzaga during the Zags' third straight trip to the NCAA Tournament's round of 16.
The Spartans believe in fairy tales, too. It's just that their script has nothing to do with Gonzaga and everything to do with winning back-to-back championships. That hasn't been done since Duke pulled it off in 1992.
"Everywhere we go, everybody is rooting against us," said senior guard Charlie Bell, who scored a game-high 21 points to lead No. 1 seed Michigan State to a 77-62 win over the No. 12 seed Zags in the South Regional semifinals at the Georgia Dome. "We're the defending national champs ... but a lot of people aren't expecting us to get back to the Final Four.
"Everybody is thinking we're going to get knocked off by somebody."
That somebody wasn't Gonzaga. Lifted by a dominating second-half surge, the Spartans turned a scare into a scorcher, holding the Zags to 32-percent shooting after intermission to win their ninth straight NCAA Tournament game.
On Sunday, Michigan State (27-4) will play Friday's Temple-Penn State winner for the right to advance to its third straight Final Four.
Forward Andre Hutson scored 19 points and snared 10 rebounds. Guard Jason Richardson added 12 for the Spartans, who owned a 49-29 advantage in rebounds - 18-7 on the offensive end - and shot 50 percent from the field in the second half.
The big question entering the game was how well Michigan State would shoot from outside, and the Spartans provided the answer during a crucial second-half stretch.
After Gonzaga took a 44-41 lead with 15:55 left, Michigan State connected on its next six field-goal attempts during a 14-2 run that ended with the Spartans up 55-46 with 10:16 left.
The Zags' fatigue had begun to show, and the Spartans noticed.
"We were a little tired also, but we knew it was winning time," said Bell, whose team's lead ballooned to 16 points. "We had been in that situation before, and it was time to suck it up."
Said Richardson: "We knew that they were getting tired, and that's the time to pick it up and take it to another notch and try to get a big lead."
And as the Zags (26-7) wore down, the Spartans turned up the heat on the defensive end. Fighting through screens, blocking shots and clogging passing lanes, Michigan State forced Gonzaga into 1-for-13 shooting during the game's decisive 10-minute stretch.
Guard Dan Dickau scored a team-high 19 points and forward Casey Calvary added 17 for the Zags, whose 37-percent shooting clip was their second lowest of the season.
"We thought we could win the game," Dickau said. "It is silly to think that you can't win a game. We kept thinking that we were going to go on a run late in the game, but it never happened."
Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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