East Lansing -- These were the sweatiest moments at the end of a great game, in the middle of a long season. Michigan State fought its way to this spot, reached for the plaudits, then slipped on its own laces.
Indiana showed why it's the No. 1 team in the country. And Michigan State showed why it's close, but not quite there. The Spartans fell by the clank of a free throw, the tip of a ball, and yes, the pressure of the moment.
The Hoosiers rose at the end, making all the key plays in the final 90 seconds, and slid past the Spartans, 72-68, Tuesday night in a breathtaking Big Ten bash. This was college basketball mostly at its finest, certainly at its tautest. There's not much separating the first-place Hoosiers from the second-place Spartans, and there's not much separating the nation's top team from the fourth-ranked team.
But the separation was there, and it surfaced in the clutch, where it usually does. Indiana junior guard Victor Oladipo was tremendous, and his tip-in with 43 seconds left produced a 68-67 lead. After that, it was Michigan State's talented freshman, Gary Harris, trying to make plays — and the super swift Oladipo actually making them.
After a few clock hiccups confused matters, the Hoosiers delivered clarity, as Oladipo broke loose for a dunk to make it 70-67. Finally, as the rowdy Breslin Center crowd went from shrieks to groans, Harris missed two of three free throws that could have tied it with 3.7 seconds left.
Tom Izzo and the Spartans were crushed, not just because they lost at the end, but because they realized they weren't ready at the start, when the Hoosiers jumped on top. With a huge buildup for the second straight game, the Spartans couldn't sustain the pace, and Izzo couldn't contain his annoyance.
"There were some things that were disappointing about the discipline of my team," Izzo said. "It's about keeping guys focused, distractions, thinking you're better than you are. We didn't play with the same energy."
A week ago, Michigan State played with incredible fury and buried Michigan. Then came talk of rankings and reputations, with senior center Derrick Nix complaining the Spartans didn't get enough respect. You have to appreciate Nix's passion, but Michigan State needed to see it during the game. Outside of Harris (19 points) and Adreian Payne (17), the Spartans buckled. Cody Zeller controlled the post until Nix started pounding late.
For all their missteps, the Spartans still had a prime chance to win, and probably should have. They scrapped back to take a 67-63 lead with 1:37 left, then couldn't make another basket. Olidapo took over, despite playing on a sore ankle, and Keith Appling missed a free throw that could have padded a one-point lead with 1:08 left.
Appling struggled mightily, hitting one of eight shots and committing four turnovers. Afterward, he didn't want to hear how close the Spartans came.
"We feel like we played one of our worst games of the year," Appling said. "You can say all you want about the national attention, but that's just an excuse. They outplayed us, simple as that."
It was a bitter, bitter tonic after a wildly entertaining game. Indiana (12-2 Big Ten) is in control of the conference having swept Michigan State (11-3). Both games were close — 75-70 at Indiana — but if you're offering solace to Izzo, you know you're gonna get it tossed back at you.
"We didn't answer the bell, if you ask me," Izzo said. "I made a big point to tell my team we get too caught up with everybody on the TV and everything."
They did answer the bell belatedly. Tom Crean, the fiery Izzo disciple, knew he came in and swiped one, Indiana's first victory here since 1991. He also knew the difference was experience down the stretch, with Oladipo and clutch seniors Christian Watford and Jordan Hulls.
The Hoosiers went strong to the basket at the end, and Watford's 3-point play on a slash across the lane was huge. The Spartans missed free throws, and when Harris drove in the waning seconds, he bounced into bodies and no foul was called.
There should be no griping. Oladipo is a difference-maker, a National Player of the Year candidate, and the Spartans' difference-makers weren't there often enough.
A great duel
In a brutally competitive Big Ten, it's about sustaining energy. Oh, the students were ready. They lined up several hours before the game, hundreds standing in the cold and whipping winds, and they made noise. It was hard to match the racket unleashed on Michigan, but at times, it did. This was basketball at a stirring pace, two great teams dueling.
The Spartans had craved the attention and were eager to embrace it — at times too eager. Early on, they were racing upcourt, committing turnovers, and if not for Payne's effort, they'd have trailed by more than 36-30 at the half. They came roaring back with defense, and when they took the lead, you could sense a court-storming from the delirious crowd.
The Spartans couldn't get there this night, but that doesn't mean they can't get there this season. Indiana earned its No. 1, no doubt. For solace sake, at least Michigan State got a painful glimpse at what it takes.
Michigan State's Gary Harris tries for a basket while under pressure from (from left) Indiana's Kevin Ferrell, Victor Oladipo, and Cody Zeller in the second half Tuesday night in East Lansing. / David Guralnick/Detroit News
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