AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – Valparaiso started scrappy and finished strong.
In between, the Crusaders weren't rugged enough to stay with Michigan State.
Derrick Nix had 23 points and a career-high 15 rebounds to help power the third-seeded Spartans past 14th-seeded Valparaiso 65-54 on Thursday.
The Crusaders (26-8) were no match for Michigan State in their first NCAA tournament in nine years, just as they weren't as a first-round loser in 2000 to the eventual champion Spartans.
Second-year coach Bryce Drew, whose buzzer-beating, game-winning shot lifted the Crusaders to a memorable win in the 1998 tourney, said he told his senior-laden team after the loss how proud he was of them.
"Wouldn't want to trade this team for anyone in the country," Drew said. "They're such a joy to be around not only on the floor, but every day at practice our coaching staff enjoys coming to be with them every day.
"And they have a lot to be proud of, a school record, 26 wins, two straight conference championships."
The Spartans went on a 26-5 run in the first half to take control, and cruised to an easy victory much to the delight of a crowd filled with green-clad fans at the home of the NBA's Detroit Pistons.
Valpo, though, didn't give up and ended the game with a 12-4 run to make the score look relatively respectable and not representative of a mostly lopsided game.
"We told them this will help them in life, what they did in the last 5 minutes," Drew said. "When things are bad in life and down, you can remember this and you fight through to the end."
Michigan State (26-8) advanced to play on Saturday when coach Tom Izzo's Spartans will be shooting for a spot in the round of 16 for the fifth time in six years.
Valpo had enough size to match up, but didn't have enough strength.
"We were a little overpowering inside," Izzo said.
The Crusaders didn't seem worried about the 6-foot-9, 270-pound Nix when asked about him the day before the game.
Valpo's 6-8, 240-pound forward Kevin Van Wijk nonchalantly said he and his teammates faced similar players in the Horizon League. If that's true, it didn't seem to prepare Van Wijk and his fellow post players for Nix's brute force, relatively nimble feet and soft hands.
Nix had nine points in the first half when he made his fourth shot to put Michigan State ahead 32-12. At that point, he had as many field goals as the Crusaders' entire team. That basket was scored after backing down Bobby Capobianco so much that the 6-10, 245-pound forward fell on his back as if he was hit by a linebacker. Nix scored 14 in the second half, falling two points shy of matching his career high.
"He's definitely a load," Valpo forward Ryan Broekhoff said. "He just sealed us a little bit too low, too close to the rim. And with his size and his skill level around the hoop, it's almost impossible to guard him."
Van Wijk, meanwhile, missed both of his shots in the first half. He fouled out without making any of his six attempts and finishing with two points — far below his 12.7-point average. Valpo's other post player and leading scorer, Broekhoff, scored eight points — half his average — on 2 of 11 shooting.
"They took away just about anything we wanted to do, and that really got us out of our rhythm," Van Wijk said. "It seemed like every time we tried something different, they immediately had an answer for it."
Erik Buggs scored 14 and Matt Kenney had 10 points for the Crusaders, whose coach called as many timeouts as he could to slow down the Spartans.
It didn't work.
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