East Lansing — The Wolverines did what they do, and are doing it better and better. The Spartans tried to do what they do but ran out of bodies, and ran into a team that isn’t afraid of anything these days.
If anyone thought this newly resurrected basketball rivalry was going away, wrong call. Michigan entered the raucous cauldron and shot its way out — figuratively, of course. When the game hung in the balance, the Wolverines hit just about every big shot, and left with the Big Ten lead all to themselves.
Michigan’s 80-75 victory Saturday night at the Breslin Center doesn’t warrant a profound announcement, not like it might have a couple years ago. We already knew the Wolverines were really good with Nik Stauskas ratcheting his game ever higher. We knew the Spartans were battered, with Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson out and Keith Appling hampered.
But this was impressive, because when the arena was at its noisiest and Michigan State’s defense was at its nastiest, Michigan didn’t crack. Freshman point guard Derrick Walton Jr. didn’t crack, as the Spartans kept fouling him and he hit nine of 10 free throws, part of a career-high 19 points. The Wolverines hit 25 of 30 free throws and 11 of 19 3-pointers, remarkable marksmanship.
Not going away
This was one of John Beilein’s finer moments because Michigan has its own challenges, losing two stars off last year’s national finalist, then losing Mitch McGary to injury. The Wolverines just beat three top-10 teams in a week, two on the road, a stunning stretch. Now 7-0 in the Big Ten (15-4 overall), they should nudge toward the top 10 after snapping Michigan State’s 11-game winning streak.
This wasn’t just about the conference race, and obviously, Michigan State (18-2, 7-1) is still right there. It was partly about showing Michigan is here to stay, with five victories in the past seven meetings.
“Already I can see people saying they had Payne and Dawson out, but I thought we did a good job proving ourselves,” said Stauskas, who scored 19. “I thought we did a great job in this environment. Just a week ago, people were saying we were 4-0 but about to fall off the map and lose some games. Shows our resilience.”
The Spartans showed resilience too, and Tom Izzo said he was as proud of his team as he’s ever been. I think he pulled out the hyperbole to boost a weary team, which is fine. But his sentiment wasn’t exactly shared in Michigan State’s dressing room.
Gary Harris was excellent with 27 points and solid defense on Stauskas, and he admitted the one-on-one battle with another Big Ten Player of the Year candidate was on his mind. Appling, dealing with a sore wrist and sore back, shot 3-for-11, and his voice barely rose above a whisper afterward.
“My view is a little different from everybody else,” said Appling, a senior. “Coach will be able to coach against Michigan at the Breslin Center again, so maybe he’s proud. But I’m not. We didn’t win. My pain is a little different from everybody else’s.”
Appling said he could barely shoot through the wrist ache, and it showed. But beyond the pain and no Payne, Michigan State built an eight-point lead in the second half, and Michigan rallied.
With Izzo using an assortment of big guys that included Matt Costello, Alex Gauna and Gavin Schilling, the Spartans controlled the boards for a while, but the Wolverines finished with a 34-30 rebounding edge. Would it have been different if Payne and Dawson played? Sure.
But the Wolverines earned full credit, winning it on a Stauskas cold-blooded 3-pointer that broke a 60-60 tie with 3:12 left, and then clutch shots by Walton Jr. Michigan has won nine straight, four on the road — Minnesota, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Michigan State
“We’ve been through this, and there’s a gradual effect of playing those tight games and getting better and better at it,” Beilein said. “So despite the tremendous atmosphere, it was like, OK, this is what we did in the last game, we can do it again.”
Wolverines just as physical
This was a taut, intense battle, as these clashes have become again. No one’s talking about some seismic shift in the rivalry, but it is notable Michigan can stand up physically to Michigan State more and more.
Stauskas talked about getting “punked” last season at the Breslin Center, when the Spartans stomped to a 75-52 victory. He even acknowledged they were getting punked again in the first half. But then there was an odd skirmish between Glenn Robinson III and Russell Byrd, and when players kept jawing, Appling and Jordan Morgan were hit with technical fouls.
Michigan trailed at that point 53-50, but gradually took control. Coincidental? Maybe not.
“It got a little chippy, guys talking, and it wasn’t necessary,” Morgan said. “They’re gonna knock you into the ground like they did last year, and you gotta be able to stand your ground. They knocked us back on our heels and we were able to respond and stay focused and keep believing we were gonna win.”
Every time Walton stepped to the line, they believed it. Every time the crowd went silent, they were convinced even more.
“That’s the best part — they try to get all into your head here, but you just keep moving and don’t let it affect you,” Morgan said. “When we went on our run, it got pretty quiet.”
The Wolverines made all the noise at the end. And if they can maintain this type of poise in this type of noise, they could make a whole lot more.