East Lansing — Surely sick of being pushed and prodded, the Spartans wound up and shoved back. Oh my, did they shove back.
They were completely ready for this, as you knew they would be, as if they'd been waiting all season for it. And the Wolverines weren't ready for any of it, not the noise or the physical play or the daunting defense.
This was an old-fashioned beating, the type Michigan State used to deliver regularly, the type Michigan had grown weary of taking. Obviously, the Spartans hadn't lost control of the rivalry, but just for fun, they took it back anyhow, rolling to a 75-52 victory Tuesday night.
This was deliberate force and relentless effort, and it was a statement, too. Michigan State pounded away, and when it got tired of that, it bombed away. The biggest showdown in the rivalry's history basically turned into a rollicking party at the Breslin Center.
"It was like a perfect storm," coach Tom Izzo said. "We played about as well as we can play, and they did not play as well. They are a much better team, and I'm not sure we're as good as we played, but I'll take it.""
By the time Keith Appling drilled a 3-pointer early in the second half to pump the lead to 19, the Wolverines looked glassy-eyed, and the Spartans had no intention of letting up. This was a stark reminder of what Izzo's team can do when pushed. The Wolverines had been pushing, at least from a distance, and you can bet they'll push again when the teams meet in Ann Arbor.
But this was a no-doubter, a two-handed shove, as Michigan State (21-4) maintained its hold on first place in the Big Ten, while Michigan (21-4) lost its second in a row. The Wolverines came in ranked fourth and the Spartans were eighth, and if ever rankings were irrelevant, this was the night.
Michigan State dominated inside, led by senior Derrick Nix, who's developing nifty moves to go with his fearsome size. When the Wolverines tried to adjust, freshman Gary Harris was blistering from the outside, and won the ballyhooed guard battle with Trey Burke. Really, this was Izzo's program at its finest, challenged by all sorts of factors.
"I think we had a little bit of an ax to grind," Izzo said. "All the talk's on them, and understandably, so I'm not crying about it. I didn't think we got disrespected. I just think that's the way it is."
The energy was incredible from the start, on a night that was all about grind and ground -- standing ground and gaining ground. Yes, Michigan's program is rising. But no, Michigan State isn't backing down, and in fact, could be pushed even higher.
The Wolverines had gotten plenty of acclaim as they flirted with the No. 1 ranking, but this was a setback. They still have climbing to do under John Beilein, and they recognize it. With Jordan Morgan slowed by a sprained ankle, they started three freshmen in a raucous arena, and couldn't match Michigan State's burly toughness. The youngsters weren't the only ones to wilt, as Michigan was harassed into 16 turnovers and Tim Hardaway Jr. shot 1-for-11.
"It was one of the most hostile environments we've played in, and we didn't respond the right way," Burke said. "We thought we were ready, but we showed we weren't. They came out and threw the first punch, and that's something we're still trying to find."
The Spartans are loaded, with a lethal inside-outside game, and when they turn on the defense and crank up the emotion, look out. This felt like more than a basketball game, like a referendum on styles and status. An hour before it started, the arena was rowdy, and the noise kept ratcheting. On a mid-winter night in the middle of the state, it was great to see -- and the nation was watching.
Fairly quickly, the Wolverines wished the nation wasn't watching. The Spartans attacked, and when Branden Dawson swiped a wayward pass and swept in for a dunk to make it 24-15, the crowd was impossibly loud.
Night of stars
How high were the stakes? Maybe the inside track on a Big Ten championship. Maybe a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Certainly a battle of perception and attrition.
It was enough to bring out all the big shots. Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford was there, and probably winced at the physical Michigan State defense. Mark Dantonio was on one side of the floor, sitting with potential football recruits. Brady Hoke and former coach Lloyd Carr were on the other side behind the Michigan bench.
These rivals are keeping keen eyes on each other, and that's the way it should be. If Dantonio wants to make a return visit on March 3 to Ann Arbor, I imagine he'll be able to get a ticket. Basketball has been a hot ticket in East Lansing for a long time, and Michigan's three victories in the past four meetings didn't make a big dent in it.
The Wolverines have changed, but the Spartans haven't. Few teams can bang with them, and in this one, they attacked with the ferocity of someone protecting their home. Michigan State used its strength to grab rebounds (41-30 advantage) and hammer a point.
The point is, when you have big bodies like Nix and a passion for punishing, you can beat teams up. The Wolverines have made obvious strides under Beilein, and that should continue. But in the process, I have a feeling they ignited Izzo and the Spartans. That's how rivalries work. The first top-10 showdown between these teams in history had to inspire Michigan State, which has been rumbling along quite nicely for 15 years without much of a threat.
The threat showed up Tuesday night looking to see where it stood. What the Wolverines learned shouldn't shock anyone who has watched Izzo's teams. When threatened, the Spartans bow their backs and fight back. You show you're in charge by taking charge and that's what they did, pound by pound.