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March 27, 2015

Branden Dawson

Tom Izzo

Travis Trice

Denzel Valentine



COACH IZZO: Get to work another day. Can't tell you how excited that makes me. That's what I asked of these guys. First, I'd like to take my hat off to Oklahoma. We played a lot of teams this year, and I thought that first half, they gave it to us in every way we could be gotten. It seemed like they had every loose ball. It seemed like they got every loose rebound. They made some good shots. I honestly was so happy we were only down four at halftime. Give them credit, but you have to give us some blame. I don't know why we didn't play with the same emotion. But the second half, I thought we played a lot better. I thought each one of these guys did some key things. Travis was unbelievable all night, and Zell, I thought, did a hell of a job because he had to guard Buddy, and he still had to make shots and get some rebounds. Branden struggled the first half, except he had nine boards. Second half, he hit three big buckets, all very important ones. As it should be in the NCAA Tournament, your juniors and seniors come through, and they sure did. So I'm just tickled to death to still be playing. We're going to play a very good team in Louisville. I was telling Branden that. His freshman year is when he blew his knee in the last game of the year. We met them in the Sweet 16, and we were missing an athlete. He's our best athlete. So happy we got him, and yet I know we'll have our hands full tomorrow.

Q. This is for Denzel: This team has continued to struggle with free throws all year. But late in the games the last couple of weeks, you guys have been good and were again tonight. What has been the difference in the big games making those shots?
DENZEL VALENTINE: We've just got to realize -- me and Travis realize we're the free-throw shooters, and we feel the most confident at the line. The team's going to go by us. So if we're missing free throws, the rest of the guys are going to miss free throws. We're confident enough, when we work hard enough on the free throws, to step to the line and knock them down.

Q. Denzel, it seems like there was a point in the second half when emotionally you kind of sparked, and all your teammates just talked about how that was a big turning point in the game. Can you kind of talk about what happened with you to get you to that point where you needed to kind of snap and get yourself back in and help your team?
DENZEL VALENTINE: I was talking to Travis in the hallway, the first half, I felt like it was my first time playing basketball. But I just kind of snapped out of it, and I was like I'm in the Sweet 16, and we've got a chance to go to the Final Four. I'm dreaming, what the heck? I just slapped the ground, and I woke up, I guess. Guys responded, and Travis led us.

Q. Travis, can you build on that? When, I think, Buddy missed that three-point shot, you guys had taken a lead on Costello's putback, I think it was. Buddy misses the three-point shot, and then Denzel comes back and hits that pull-up three. How much life, energy did it give this team at that point?
TRAVIS TRICE: I think it just speaks to how great of a player Denzel is. The stakes were high, and if he misses that shot, we might not be here right now. We're probably on our way home. So you've got to give Denzel a lot of credit. And just him responding. Like you said, early in the first half, he was kind of struggling. Some players might give up, but he's the type of player where he bounces back.

Q. Denzel, kind of as a continuation on that one, it looked like there may have been some contact at midcourt, maybe not. What happened on that? When you hit that three just before on the outlet. And then for Travis, you make six free throws in the final 1:20. What's going through your head down the stretch?
DENZEL VALENTINE: You said there was contact?

Q. It looked like there may have been contact. The guy fell backwards. Couldn't tell if he touched you or not. On the pull-up three.
DENZEL VALENTINE: I didn't pay attention to anything. I saw the basket, and I saw I was wide open. I just shot on confidence really.

TRAVIS TRICE: What did you ask me? (Laughter).

Q. That's why I don't ask two-part questions. Six free throws in the final 1:20. What's going through your head? What exactly are you thinking? Or were you clearing your head completely at that point?
TRAVIS TRICE: To be honest with you, I'm just thinking, knock them down. I just want to win the game. That's all really.

Q. Follow-up on that, Travis, you're a senior. Every one of these games could be your last game. You played like this is not going to be my last game the entire time, even when the rest of the team wasn't. Do you think that? Is that in your head when you are a senior in the NCAA Tournament and everything that's on the line?
TRAVIS TRICE: I'd be lying to you if I said I thought about it. I approach every game to win. I have complete faith in our coaching staff and our team that I approach every game like we're going to win. I never once think that we might lose or we could lose. It's what do we got to do to win?

Q. Denzel, another question about one of your plays: There's a play where there's a switch, and you ended up on Spangler, and the defensive rebound got away from you. I think there's a time-out, and you guys got the ball back, and you went to the offensive glass pretty hard. Do you remember that time? Were you trying to make up for something there? In the final minute, what do you remember about that play right there?
DENZEL VALENTINE: Me and B.J. switched off. He switched off with Buddy, and I switched off to Spangler, and he missed a shot. Me and Spangler are kind of getting physical, and he got the rebound from me, and he was like, "You're too small." I was like all right. So next possession, I was like, "This is my board. I don't even care." When Travis shot it or whoever shot it, I just went up, and I got the rebound.

Q. Denzel, last year at Madison Square Garden right after the loss to UConn, you told me, "We'll be back to the Elite Eight." That was quite a projection considering you lost two NBA players. Is there a sense of relief? Or what is the feeling after this game? Is there time to enjoy or simply look forward?
DENZEL VALENTINE: It's great that we won and everything, but we've been here before, last year in this spot, and I know how it takes a lot of hard work to get here. So we don't want this Elite Eight game to be our last either. So we're approaching this like this is our last. We're hungry. We want to get to the Final Four. That's our mission.

Q. Talk about how big those three baskets you made in the second half. Can you talk a little bit about what was different. Looked like they weren't running that many doubles at you. Just the emotion you have right now of continuing on in the season.
BRANDEN DAWSON: Those two shots that I made, they were big. When I got the ball, Denzel made a great entry pass. I looked, and I knew -- I saw that the double-team didn't come. So Coach has been talking to me about just making a move all year. So I made my move and made a good shot. So I think they did a great job of just bringing the double-team at me, but I just kept going, and my teammates just kept picking me up.

Q. Branden, just one thing: A month ago, this team wasn't really sure whether you might make the Tournament. And now here you are going to the Elite Eight. Just can you put in perspective what this past month has been like.
BRANDEN DAWSON: It was just us playing relentless. Denzel, he talked to the media and said, "We have to approach every game like it's us against the world." Since the Big Ten Tournament, I think that's how we've been playing. Us three have to lead these guys. So we have a good team. Like someone stated, we lost two bona fide NBA players last year. So we just had to pick this team up. So at the beginning of the season, as you stated, a lot of people were talking about us not even making the Tournament. We just kept believing and kept pushing and kept playing with that passion and dedication.

Q. Tom, you've done a lot of improbable things in your career with teams. Where does this one rank?
COACH IZZO: First. Well, I shouldn't say that. I've been fortunate to have so many great moments. But this team was -- not only did we lose those guys, but we lose Kaminski, losing our best freshman. We just had to hang in there. We lost so many close games. They missed free throws, and I didn't make the right calls with two seconds left on three-point shots. We kind of all made some mistakes together. So it's kind of been, you know, we hung in there. At our place, again, the Tournament isn't the deal anymore. We were an eyelash away from winning the Big Ten Tournament. I thought we played well enough to win it, but Wisconsin did the job down the stretch. We just started believing about 14 games ago that we had to change our approach, and our approach, we were a soft team. The first half, either they were monsters, or we reverted back for a little while. I just didn't like the way we played, and I don't think our players did. To their credit, and I think you're right about Denzel; he's got a little bit more grit to him in some ways. It's just been enjoyable. This has been the closest knit team I have, and it's been maybe a little less talented one that we've had, and we've had that albatross on our back on the free-throw shooting. We've kind of dealt with it, you know, and we have not hid from it. We've dealt with it. So one more victory would be one of the sweeter moments in my career because I think it would teach you that you can do it a lot of different ways. I should thank Kevin Ollie for he's given me a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel here, as I remember back when they came in and waxed us. We have a lot of work ahead of us. I'm just so happy I get to work tonight. I can't tell you.

Q. Do you think you guys could have won this game a month ago?
COACH IZZO: A month, maybe that's about when it started. I don't know. I mean, I didn't know if we could win it tonight, the way we were playing that first half. I have a lot of respect for Lon and his team, but you constantly learn about your own team, too. They got challenged at halftime. I mean, it was an interesting locker room, and they needed to be challenged. What I started to like is they started to challenge each other. I don't know what we would have done a month ago or a month and a half ago. I'm one of those guys, I just look to the future. I don't let things from the past bother me.

Q. Coach, you've had amazing players for 20 years. Have you ever had a kid like Travis Trice, who's come from where he came from, to be leading you and carrying you at some points to where you're at right now?
COACH IZZO: As a coach, you kind of fall in love with the guys that remind you more of yourself. I think Travis has good a chance of leading us to an Elite Eight, maybe a Final Four, as I did in getting this job. We're kind of long shots. He's proven right from the standpoint of, when I was recruiting Branden, I kind of fell in love with this kid that could just play. He was too skinny. He was too small. He was too this and too that. But unbelievable family, a dad who's a coach. Just ability to win. And he's staying healthy, and that's been a big thing. I think that's been the difference this year and all the other three years. He's been healthy.

Q. Coach, just your preliminary thoughts on facing Coach Pitino. Any good stories or anecdotes? I think this is your third NCAA Tournament game against him.
COACH IZZO: Yeah, one more at Indy and one where we didn't put up much of a fight down in Arizona. But Vitale is happy. He's got his Italian woodworking team or whatever he calls us. So he's happy. Rick's a great coach. He, too, has gone through a year a little bit like ours. Maybe they didn't lose as many games. I think people counted them out, "What's wrong with them?" They lost a player, and he just rebounded back like any great coach would and a great team would. They have athletes that are shooting the ball better, as I see lately. I've watched a little bit of film on them, as I do everybody that we've played in this tournament, but the next 24 hours I can give you a better answer, to be honest with you.

Q. You look almost giddy up there. Pitino was similarly giddy after winning. You guys have been here a lot of times. What is it about that keeps making it so freshly enjoyable?
COACH IZZO: Man, you're right. You read me right. You probably read him right. I think anybody who has any passion for this profession. You know, last year when we lost to UConn and it broke our streak of our seniors getting to a Final Four. I mean, I knew the streak was meant to be broken. That's what records are. And it didn't hurt me as much, but I didn't realize the impact on Travis and Zell. So another chance to maybe restart, another run, and a chance to deal with some guys that you truly -- I think even our former players that call back, they just have an appreciation for this team because nobody tries to side track that it's not quite as God-given talent as others we've had. But they just kind of work their way through, and they've done it together. We've been a good defensive team because we play together. They're coachable. They can take something, and they can respond. I think that's what you always look for in a team. So "giddy" is a good word. I've got a couple of other ones, but it's good.

Q. Tom, all year you said you felt this could be a very good team. You didn't know if they could be a great team. You're in the Elite Eight now. There's probably still a lesser margin of error, but how do you quantify what this team has become?
COACH IZZO: That's the thing. I think our margin of error is extremely slim as we clang a few free throws off and did some things. We don't have as big a margin for error as maybe any team I've ever coached. But maybe that's good for this team. I don't know where I'd rank us. This tournament is all about matchups. We could have got beat early with the right matchup. That will be something I'll think about after this season, where does this team fall in line? But this team, if we could win another game -- I hate to say that after winning a National Championship, but it might be one of my favorite banners ever being hung from those rafters just because of what this team has gone through.

Q. Tom, you mentioned about clanging the free throws. It was clanging quite a bit early in the game. What was the difference now with this team down the stretch, A, where they're making free throws, B, where they're coming up with the clutch plays that maybe a couple weeks ago they weren't?
COACH IZZO: I think they're getting a little confidence. I think maybe we're doing a better job of keeping it in the right players' hands. And our right players are making it. Travis Trice is an 82% free-throw shooter. At one point he was down in the mid-60s this year. I knew that would bounce back. I remember when I first got here, I remember Jud Heathcote, we had a bad free-throw shooting team, and I said, Why don't we work on it more? And he said, Why don't we get the right guys to the free-throw line? Makes some sense, just don't always have that option. These guys are making plays. I think they're doing a better job of coming out of huddles, knowing what we're going to do. I think they trust each other a little bit more. I think we're executing a little better. There's times I just look at my staff and say, what are we doing? But there's times I look at my staff and say, wow, these guys are spilling it. The second half I thought we did. The first half I didn't think we did.

Q. Coach, as much as you talked about the improbability of this, last summer you said how much you liked this group of players and you thought you could win even without the stretch forward. How has the season unfolded? And what adjustments have you had to make to get the performance you saw last summer?
COACH IZZO: I think this year we had to make more adjustments than any team I've ever been with. Nothing was smooth. We're changing things up all the time because Matt Costello can guard a ball different than Gavin Schilling. We used to change a lot with Tum in it there. We don't want to do much of that because we have such a mismatch. We've had to reinvent ourselves a little bit. That's where I give my staff -- they did a hell of a job. They really did. We made adjustments. We're not just one of those teams that just go to the system, like a Wisconsin, who's very, very good at it. We're kind of a bag of nuts, and we're just kind of do what we can do to attack the teams we need to attack each week because there are some deficiencies. There's nothing better than when a team can self-evaluate. This team can understand what it does and what it doesn't do. When you have a team like that, I think you have a chance to get better because they know what their weakness is, what their strengths are, and I think they responded in a very good way.

Q. Tom, they start 8-for-11. I know a couple of those were turnovers for touchdowns, but what changed defensively for the rest of the game?
COACH IZZO: Well, they got every loose ball, too. I think at one point they had scored on every possession because they missed a couple of shots, got the rebound, and put those back, too. We were leaving early. We were just a day late and a dollar short on every everything we did. I don't have an answer why. When I asked the players, they didn't answer very well. You guys maybe will get more out of them than I did. I think we started locking up a little bit. We started executing better. They took us out of a lot of stuff early. They really came at us. I thought Lon's team played such a good first half, or good first ten minutes. We started running different things, too. It's one thing with our offense, we can run a lot of different stuff. When one doesn't work, we go to another. We were on probably phase 25 by the time the first half was over because they took away a lot of things. Very well-coached team. And yet our guys, Trice and Valentine, really started making some plays, and that was the difference.

Q. Tom, you talked about the bag of nuts and the adjustments. Down the stretch, you guys started doing that thing where the guards revolve around in circles around the screeners, and that got Trice for a three-pointer and Dawson for a post-up. Why did you settle on that? It's not something you guys do a lot. How did you find that, and what were you thinking to go to that?
COACH IZZO: Where did I find it? That's about right. We were laying in bed one night, and Shazam, it came up. You know, we did run that better earlier in the year, but they were doing such a great job on ball screens that we just had to get some movement. In it all honesty, Virginia runs some of that. Ohio State runs a little bit of it. We just went to it to try to get the ball inside. We felt like we were getting some shots. Then they started cheating over the top, and we faded it to the corner, and Trice hit that big one, and hit a big one on the other side. That was what loosened things up late. That's what we went to late. We were kind of grasping at straws because they did a hell of a job. You look at Lon at the end, and I thought they played well enough to win, too. I'm just happy we're moving on.

Q. Tom, it's now 1:10 in the morning, speaking of late.
COACH IZZO: Awesome!

Q. What are your plans now? And how much different are they than those tournaments when you finish late and have to come back for an early game on Sunday?
COACH IZZO: It's a weird day today. I called a couple of my captains in there in the morning when we had breakfast, and I said, what are we going to do today? What do you want to do? Believe it or not, I said, what about going to a movie? Show you how soft I'm getting. I probably caused the problems in the first half. Instead of grinding it in some film, we went to a damn movie. We did it just to try to break up the day. But last week, we played the early game. You've got a lot of time. Last year we did not do a very good job. We got back at 1:30, 2:00 in the morning last year, and I thought I did a terrible job. So I'm re-evaluating. We looked at some things we want to do, maybe get them a little more rest and us a little more work. Because this is a tough team to prepare for, too, with their press and their zone and all the stuff they do that we don't get to see a lot of. We'll get some time. We've just got to be a little smarter in how we handle it. I didn't think I did a very good job. This is tough on a player. I understand why. I tell them, they can sleep all summer. Don't worry about that.

Q. What movie?
COACH IZZO: I didn't go. They went. I was working. What was it? "Get Hard", yeah. I had to find something that was a little light. I didn't want anything too deep. That wasn't too deep. I kept seeing the commercials. Will Ferrell had visited our place a few years ago. Last year I sat with Kevin Hart at the UConn game. So I said, this could be a good omen. So they went. I said, if we lose, we'll never do it again. If we win, hell, we might go to the movies tomorrow. I don't know.
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