NEW YORK — Branden Dawson was on track to be the next Michigan State star when he arrived in East Lansing back in 2011. He was a five-star prospect, a top 20 recruit that Tom Izzo pulled out of Gary, IN. After an ACL injury at the end of his freshman season limited his development heading into his sophomore campaign, this year, his junior year, was supposed to be his time to shine.
Only … it wasn’t.
At times dominant and at times non-existent in the early part of the season, Dawson found himself struggling early on in Big Ten play when he broke a bone in his right hand, an injury that sent the Michigan State season into a tailspin. He missed nine games. The Spartans lost five of them, losing two of the first three games after he was able to return to the floor.
Something changed at the start of Big Ten play. After nearly three seasons of struggling to live up to the expectations that he had as a high schooler, Dawson’s turned in the best two weeks of basketball of his career. He averaged 15.0 points and 7.3 boards in three wins in Michigan State’s Big Ten tournament title run, and it didn’t stop there.
Dawson went for 24 points and 10 boards to lead No. 4 Michigan State to a 61-59 win over No. 1 Virginia in Friday night’s second East Regional semifinal. The Spartans will advance to face No. 7 seed UConn on Sunday, as the Huskies knocked off No. 3 Iowa State in the opener.
Dawson’s performance followed up the 26 points and nine boards he had as the Spartans held off No. 12 Harvard in the Round of 32. All told, since the start of tournament play, Dawson is averaging 17.5 points and 8.2 boards while shooting 69.7% from the field.
“I’m thinking about going and breaking my hand with the way that he’s playing right now,” junior guard Travis Trice said, chickling, after the game.
Dawson’s physicality and raw athleticism was a difference-maker for the Spartans, as he finished a handful of dunks around the rim in traffic. Virginia’s defense is as tough as any in the country, which is why Dawson’s play was so important. The Cavaliers had Michigan State scouted to perfection — as senior point guard Keith Appling put it, “Man, it was almost like they do every single play. They do where the ball was going before it got there.” — which limited what the Spartans were going to be able to get off of their sets.
In other words, as cliche as it may sound, the Spartans needed their playmakers to make plays, and Dawson played a vital role in the two most important buckets of the game.
Midway through the second half, after Michigan State had scored a pair of back-to-back buckets, Trice was able to leak out, getting himself free for one of the Spartan’s lone transition buckets: a deep, but open, three off the dribble on a 1-on-2 “break”. It capped a 7-0 spurt and came in the middle of a 13-2 run that turned a four-point deficit into a 49-42 lead. But the reason that Trice was able to get that shot was that Dawson corralled a rebound in the middle of three Virginia players, sparking the break with a perfect outlet.
“I’m happy got the rebound because I leaked out,” Trice said.
Virginia made their run, tying the game at 51 with less than two minutes left, but the Spartans responded. After Adreian Payne buried a three to put the Spartans up 54-51, he came back on the next possession and threw an alley-oop to Dawson, a pass that wasn’t exactly expected, as Dawson tells it.
“Honeslty I didn’t know Adreian Payne was going to throw it,” Dawson said with a laugh. “I just went up and caught the ball and tried to dunk it.”
The bucket put the Spartans up 56-51 and Virginia wouldn’t get the ball with a chance to tie the game again until there were just 1.4 seconds left on the clock.
Michigan State moves on, thanks to Dawson, and they’ll play Sunday for the right to play in the program’s first Final Four since 2010.