EAST LANSING, Mich. — Matt McQuaid remembers the moment vividly.
It was last March 18 when No. 15 seed Middle Tennessee State led No. 2 Michigan State by 9 points with 5.1 seconds left in the first, and last, game for the Spartans in the NCAA Tournament. McQuaid and Kyle Ahrens, both freshmen, ran up opposite sidelines as the Spartans raced for the final shot of the game, however unnecessary.
Tum Tum Nairn put it up from deep on the left wing. McQuaid and Ahrens curled toward the rim, as players do in search of an offensive rebound. They never touched it. The miss fell to Middle Tennessee’s Perrin Buford, who pounded it on the hardwood as time expired on a 90-81 win for the Blue Raiders.
Ahrens and McQuaid found themselves face-to-face under the basket. Pleasantries were not exchanged.
“We said a word that I probably can’t say,” McQuaid remembered.
The Michigan State coaches’ consciences are clear. Associate head coach Dwayne Stephens said he hadn’t even thought about the game until asked. The Spartans didn’t play poorly, he said. Middle Tennessee shot 55.9 percent. “If that happens, we’re probably gonna lose,” he said.
But McQuaid won’t forget it. That loss at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis served as his first taste of the tournament. He remembers the shootaround, the butterflies that came when he stepped on the floor. The loss wiped all those good vibes away.
“I still think about it to this day,” he said. “I try to use it as motivation and just build off of it.”
Six active players on Michigan State’s roster come in with NCAA Tournament experience, but after the early exit last year, only Nairn and Alvin Ellis III have played significant minutes. McQuaid, Ahrens, Kenny Goins and Matt Van Dyk have combined for 18 career minutes of tournament action.
So it’s on the older guys, as few as there are, to stress the importance of what this moment means. Nairn has tried to help his younger teammates anticipate the moment so the emotions won’t hit them quite as hard when they step on the floor.
“I know those guys are gonna be excited to play in an NCAA Tournament,” Nairn, a junior, said, “so it’s just my job to make sure they stay focused and don’t feel too much pressure. Just play the game, understand how important it is but just stay focused. I’ve got to keep them calm and also keep them ready to play.”
Two members of Michigan State’s talented freshman class didn’t even watch the game last year. Point guard Cassius Winston was practicing with his high school team, which was seeking a state championship, and Miles Bridges was traveling back from a tournament. Social media — primarily Michigan fans — let him know the outcome.
“I thought for sure we were gonna win that game,” he said, “so I wasn’t even gonna watch it.”
That game showed Bridges, who led the Spartans in scoring this season by averaging 16.7 points per game, how no win can be assumed. This season, Michigan State lost at home to Northeastern in December. The Huskies finished 15-16 and won’t play in a postseason tournament.
He’s been hearing it from the players who have been through it before. The next game could be his last of the season — and with the NBA beckoning, possibly his last for the Spartans.
“They told us that we need to come out ready to go with intensity,” he said of the message from his teammates, “because it could be our last game. We don’t want that feeling again.”