East Lansing — As Michigan guard Nik Stauskas ran off the floor at Breslin Center, he blew kisses to the Michigan State crowd.
It would be hard to blame him for the burst of emotion after No. 21 Michigan defeated No. 3 Michigan State, 80-75, on Saturday. It was the third straight win over a top-10 team for the Wolverines, who were coming off victories over Wisconsin and Iowa. It was also their ninth straight win overall and left them atop the Big Ten standings, the only team left without a loss.
It also marks the best Big Ten start for Michigan (15-4, 7-0 Big Ten) since 1976-77, when it opened conference play 8-0.
For Michigan State, it was its first conference loss and ended an 11-game win streak dating to Dec. 4, when the Spartans fell at home to North Carolina.
“We talk so much about how this is a great win for us because of who we were just able to beat,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “It’s one of the classiest, best programs in the country. They do things the right way. They’ve got great players, they have a great coaching staff, they have a great plan, and for our guys to come in here and get the ‘W’ means a lot.”
It was the fifth victory in the last seven meetings for the Wolverines, who got 19 points from Stauskas and freshman guard Derrick Walton Jr. — a career-high for Walton — and 17 points from Caris Lavert. But few points were bigger than Stauskas’ 3-pointer with the game tied at 60 and 3:11 left on the clock. It came in the middle of a 10-0 Michigan run that proved to be the difference.
“I was trailing behind Caris and I kind of figured he was going to drop it off, but I didn’t know he was going to do it,” Stauskas said. “I just tried to shoot it deep in the bucket.”
It was a fitting end for Stauskas, who had been frustrated much of the night by the defense of Gary Harris. However, Stauskas was still efficient and went 7-for-12 from the field and 5-for-6 from 3-point range.
“If he got open, he was knocking it down,” Harris said of Stauskas. “That’s what he does. He’s a shooter. He gets an open look, he’s gonna shoot the ball and he’s gonna make a lot of them. That’s why he’s leading the conference in scoring.”
But right behind Stauskas in the scoring race is Harris. And with Adreian Payne (sprained right foot) out for the fifth straight game and Branden Dawson (broken right hand) joining him after having surgery Thursday, Harris did his best to carry the Spartans.
He scored a career-high 27 while Alvin Ellis III added a career-best 12 points and Keith Appling scored 10 points and handed out a career-high 10 assists.
“In the 30 years I’ve been here, I’ve never been more proud of a team,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “I played guys that haven’t played in a month. Keith Appling — I can’t tell you how much that kid sucked it up. If Harris isn’t the best player at both ends of the court in this league, God bless whoever is.”
Despite being short-handed, the Spartans (18-2, 7-1) were in a position to win. They overcame a hot start from the Wolverines and put together a 19-6 run in the first half to take a 21-16 lead. The Spartans eventually pushed the lead to 30-22 before a 3-pointer by Zak Irvin and a three-point play from Walton cut Michigan State’s lead to 32-30. However, the Spartans scored the final four points of the half on a putback from Gavin Schilling and fast-break layup from Harris, who finished the half with 12 points.
In the second half, Michigan State was hanging on and led 53-48. But that’s when Michigan made its push, going on a 7-1 run to take its first lead, 55-54, since there were nearly 12 minutes to play in the first half.
But the Spartans snatched the lead right back on a 3-pointer by Ellis and a free throw by Harris — only to see Michigan tie the game at 58 on a 3-pointer by Walton.
Appling scored on a layup that was good on a goaltending call to put MSU up 60-58 before Michigan tied it on two free throws from Glenn Robinson III. Stauskas then hit his 3-pointer with 3:11 to play and after Appling had his layup blocked, Walton converted on a three-point play with 2:29 left to put Michigan ahead, 66-60.
The Spartans kept battling, but the Wolverines were near perfect from the free-throw line down the stretch, including a 9-for-10 performance from Walton, who made 8-of-9 in the final two-and-a-half minutes.
“Don’t take anything away from them,” Izzo said. “They made some shots, they made some plays. We had our chance. We had the lead most of the game. We couldn’t hang on when we got into a little bit of foul trouble, and that was one of my fears.
“Those injuries aren’t going away, so I don’t want to make that an excuse. We’ll have some games to play where we won’t have them again.”
And it doesn’t get any easier for Michigan State, which travels to No. 10 Iowa on Tuesday.
Michigan, on the other hand, hosts Purdue on Thursday and should vault up the national rankings Monday. However, Beilein was focused on the fact the Wolverines have beaten three straight quality teams to sit atop the Big Ten.
“I know we beat three really good teams,” Beilein said. “It’s three teams that I think will be in the top four or five in the Big Ten. To beat those, that’s what really means a lot because now you have a game up on them in some regard for the Big Ten championship, which to every coach in this league is what we’re trying to do. The national stuff, forget about it. It’s about the Big Ten right now.”
And in that Big Ten, it’s Michigan — at this point in the season — that sits alone on top.