Michigan State guard Gary Harris tries to drive past Ohio State guard Aaron Craft on Saturday night at Breslin Center. (Dale G. Young/Detroit News)
East Lansing — Style points have never really been Michigan State coach Tom Izzo's style.
But the longer his team stays in the hunt for another Big Ten title — at the moment, the Spartans are sitting alone atop the conference standings — the more he'll point to Saturday night's 59-56 win over No. 11 Ohio State at the Breslin Center as the reason why.
"I don't know if it was pretty to watch or not," Izzo said, exhaling loudly as he began his postgame news conference. "But it was a hell of a game."
Lately, they always are when these two teams meet, aren't they? The last three matchups have been decided by four points or fewer, with the Spartans winning two, including Saturday's tug-of-war.
And when this one was over, after a panicked 3-point try by Ohio State's Shannon Scott caromed wildly off the backboard a couple seconds before time expired, Izzo met at midcourt with Ohio State coach Thad Matta for an extended chat, while their players headed to the locker rooms to count their teeth.
Asked later what the two coaches talked about, Matta laughed and replied, "Just how hard this is."
It's never been harder in the Big Ten, you could argue, with six teams ranked in the top 25 — a list that didn't even include the league leader heading into Saturday night, when Wisconsin suffered its first conference loss at Iowa.
But while Michigan and Indiana began conference play earlier this month as the odds-on favorites, perhaps, it's the two teams that squared off in East Lansing that have been the standard bearers for the last several years. And still figure to have their say in this year's race.
Ohio State's three losses before Saturday came at Duke, Kansas and Illinois, and the Buckeyes already have a win over Michigan under their belt. Michigan State's lone loss in its last dozen games came at Minnesota in the Big Ten opener, and they've got a win over Kansas, too.
"You've got what I would consider — and I don't want to say this and step out of bounds — but two of the top college basketball programs going head-to-head," said Matta, whose team is coming off a Final Four trip last spring and consecutive 30-win seasons. "In this league, it's kind of been us battling. We've won five of the last seven Big Ten championships, and they've probably won the ones we haven't."
One of them, actually, to go with two other shared titles the last four seasons for Izzo & Co.
But this rivalry seems to run even deeper than that, at least in part because Ohio State has won four games in East Lansing since 2006, while the rest of the Big Ten has won six combined.
"For whatever reason — I don't know if the styles clash or what — we've had some unbelievable battles in here," said Matta, whose teams had won three of their last four at the Breslin Center.
Saturday's slugfest certainly was another of those. Both teams shot under 45 percent from the field, while committing 30 fouls and 27 turnovers. Michigan State didn't have a double-figure scorer until only a few minutes remained in the game. Ohio Sate got half its points from star Deshaun Thomas and 9-for-27 shooting from the rest of the team.
But in this league, it's rarely a beauty pageant. Which, of course, makes nights like this one a sight to behold for Izzo, whose team finished plus-9 in the rebound margin and dominated with a 34-14 advantage in points in the paint.
"I love it, huh?" the Spartans' coach said. "This is why you play, man. It is a classic game, in different ways. I didn't think there was (bad) shooting. I just think, I mean, both teams played hard."
There's that word again. Be prepared to hear it repeated — again and again — as the Big Ten's best teams take turns beating each other up for the next several weeks. And the more you do, the more you might like Michigan State's chances.
Because as hard as it might be to envision these Spartans (16-3, 5-1 Big Ten) staying on top — back-to-back tests at Wisconsin and Indiana are looming this week — it's obvious Izzo is mildly surprised by his "strange" team's success thus far.
"We did two things really well tonight, that we've continuously done," he said, parroting something MSU football coach Mark Dantonio told him recently. "We really fought in the last five minutes. And we're finding ways to win. And as much as that might frustrate you like it does me, at times, it shows a little character."
Saturday, the Spartans showed it in front of a noisy crowd of 14,797 — easily the loudest of the season — at Breslin Center, where they've won 29 of their last 30 games.
"Man, it was amazing tonight," said guard Keith Appling, who scored the final six points to seal the win. "Our fans, they brought everything tonight. They brought everything they could."
The lone blemish in that Breslin streak, by the way, was last year's regular season finale, a 72-70 loss to the Buckeyes that forced a three-way tie for the Big Ten title. That wasn't something the players talked much about this week. But that's only because none of them needed any reminders of what it felt like, a Senior Day spoiled both by a crushing defeat and the season-ending knee injury suffered by Branden Dawson, who certainly showed no ill effects Saturday as he grabbed 10 rebounds.
"This was a pretty big one," Appling admitted afterward. "We knew what it meant."
And it showed, the way it always seems to when these two teams get together. If it wasn't Appling pounding his hands on the floor in a defensive stance, it was Ohio State's Aaron Craft diving on the floor for one of his five steals. And if it wasn't Thomas draining another 3-pointer — six in all Saturday — it was Adreian Payne with a critical 3-point play late.
As mid-January games in the Big Ten go, this was about as entertaining as it gets.
"You get these rivalries," Izzo said. "We had them (in the Big Ten) in the 2000s, when it was Wisconsin-Illinois, and then it became Ohio State and us. You get these things where you have a couple years where the games are so, so tight and so important."
And so easy to ignore all the flaws and enjoy it for what it was: A hard-earned win.
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