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Sissoko’s long season coming up big in the end

PHOTO: MIchigan State’s Mady Sissoko pulled down nine boards against Mississippi State’s big front line.

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CHARLOTTE – Michigan State’s Mady Sissoko grabbed a defensive rebound less than seven minutes into the game and was quick enough getting down court to put down a monster dunk just eight seconds later.

But an early score for a 12-8 lead off the bench from Michigan State’s enigmatic big man wasn’t the only spark he provided to helped propel the Spartans to a 69-51 win over Mississippi State Thursday afternoon in the first round the NCAA West Region at the Spectrum Center.

More of my Michigan State basketball regional coverage from Charlotte:

Wednesday: Is there a doctor in Michigan State’s Charlotte house? – Tom Shanahan Report

Thursday: Sissoko’s long season coming up big in the end – Tom Shanahan Report

Friday: Tom Izzo’s NCAA streak pre-dates Tar Heel birthdays – Tom Shanahan Report

Friday: Kevin Guskiewicz wearing green for this year’s NCAA Tournament – Tom Shanahan Report

Saturday: The Spartans, despite struggling, stayed together to the bitter end – Tom Shanahan Report


Nor was his personal turning point,  the game-high nine rebounds he pulled down – two offensive and seven defense – to lead the ninth-seeded Spartans (20-14) to a 35-29 rebounding edge against the taller and longer No. 8-seeded Bulldogs.

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo pointed back six days ago to the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals. The Spartans lost their most recent game to Purdue 67-62, but Sissoko, a 6-foot-9, 250-pound senior, pulled down seven boards in just 10 minutes off the bench while matched against 7-4 Zach Edey, the Big Ten’s Player of the Year.

“I thought the best he played this year was against Purdue when he was the monster rebounder like the guy that I recruited,” Izzo said after Thursday’s NCAA Tournament game. “He hadn’t been that way all year. That’s one of the things we talked about. We did not think we could win this game without him doing what he did and sure enough … ”

Izzo looked down at his post-game state sheet.

“I did not realize he had nine rebounds. That’s even more impressive.”

No one is harder on his players than Izzo and no one defends them in the public eye more than Izzo.

Before he commented on Sissoko’s crucial rebounding to advance the Spartans to the Second Round of the West Regional on Saturday against No. 1-seed, home-state favorite North Carolina (27-7), he was more father than coach.

“It’s been hard on Mady,” Izzo said. “People like to pick apart things you do. That kid has been through a lot in his life and this year with some deaths in the family.”

For Sissoko, family is more than a phone call from home. As any Michigan State fans knows, his journey is about more than matriculating from high school ball to Division I college play.

He’s from Bafoulabe, Mali in West Africa, and he hasn’t left his homeland behind. The environmental science major has already made more than a slam dunk back home. He opened a school last year with fund-raising and NIL money through his Mady Sissoko Foundation.

However, Sissoko received bad news from home in early February. His grandmother passed away unexpectedly. 

Izzo and Sissoko’s teammates weren’t aware of his loss until the moments after Michigan State’s game at Minnesota on Feb. 6. Izzo was surprised and concerned that Sissoko had kept the bad news to himself for more than a day. 

“It’s just a different culture,” Izzo said at the time.

Izzo was sensitive to Sissoko’s situation, while also trying to hold the senior accountable to his role with the Michigan State basketball team. 

Sissoko’s defense, rebounding and productivity waned in February. He was replaced in the starting lineup. He played only six minutes in the final game of the regular season at Indiana. 

“You know what’s cool, and we do this a lot, when a guy struggles, we put them on the scout team,” Izzo said. “You talk about an insult, when a senior is on the scout team … he embraced it.”

Sissoko began regaining steps toward his old self. And he may have even improved.

“He made some moves on the scout team where I asked him, ‘Where in the hell have them been?’,” Izzo said.

Izzo wasn’t sure how Sissoko would handle the brief demotion. 

“When we talked to Mady about going back to scout team, and get some confidence back, and asking him, ‘Do you really want to be here? Do you want to do this?’ And boy when he answered like he did, he’s had three really good games in a row in a lot of ways,” Izzo said.

But it didn’t happen immediately. Sissoko played a season-low one minute in Michigan State’s victory over Minnesota in the Big Ten Tournament. Then, in a narrow and somewhat-encouraging 67-62 loss to Purdue in the Big Ten Tournament Semifinals, Sissoko had seven rebounds in 10 minutes of playing time. Izzo left him in the game as long as he could, used all five of Sissoko’s fouls, and 100 percent of his rebounding tenacity.

That tenacity carried over to this game against Mississippi State, the third-best rebounding team in the SEC. With Sissoko’s help, the Spartans beat the Bulldogs on the boards, 35-29.

“My favorite word in this day and age is entitled,” Izzo said. “Everybody is entitled. That son of a gun ain’t entitled in any way, shape or form.

“You love when guys get what you think they deserve. I was happy for Mady, I really was.”

Of Sissoko’s nine rebounds, one in particular stood out to stem a possible momentum shift midway through the second half. As the clock ticked down to 10 minutes to play, Sissoko kept alive a lengthy sequence of banging bodies under the Spartans’ basket.

The teams had been trading scores when Mississippi State’s 6-11 Tolu Smith converted an offensive rebound to cut Michigan State’s advantage to 56-45. The Spartans pushed the ball up court but missed an outside shot, opening the door for the Bulldogs to capitalize and trim the deficit to single digits.

But after Michigan State freshman Xavier Booker grabbed the offensive rebound and missed the putback that rolled off the rim, Sissoko crossed under the basket to grab the rebound. He kicked the ball out to Tre Hollaman, who buried a three-pointer for a 59-45 lead with 9:59 to play.

That play caused Mississippi State to call time out. Izzo met Sissoko and Booker as they trotted off the court with two fists raised in the air and an emphatic cheer. 

Michigan State maintained a double-digit lead the remainder of the game.

“We did a great job on their bigs, I’m just telling you,” Izzo said. “Our bigs, for all the fans that malign ‘em, be careful because they did a great job. Mady Sissoko gets nine rebounds. What he did was phenomenal.”

Sissoko’s game this year has been plagued by foul trouble, but he played a physical contest while whistled only twice for fouls against Mississippi State.

Michigan State’s four-man rotation of big men finished with a collective nine points and 14 rebounds. The other three were Booker, 5 points, 1 rebound; Carson Cooper, 0-2; and Jaxon Kohler, 2-2.

“It was old school win for us,” Izzo said. “The Cleaves, the Smiths, the Petersons, Draymonds and all the other guys from the past would be proud.”

Thank you, Mady.

Nothing makes your coach smile more than a performance from a current player that allows him to reach back to celebrate the Mateen Cleaves, Steve Smith, Morris Peterson, Draymond Green and other Spartan greats.


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