Ann Arbor — With two weeks left in the Big Ten season, it’s too early to say that the regular-season championship has been decided.
Michigan coach John Beilein won’t say it. Nik Stauskas won’t say it.
But the Wolverines took a big step toward claiming their second title in the last three years, taking a thrilling 79-70 victory over No. 13 Michigan State on Sunday afternoon in front of a raucous sellout crowd at Crisler Center.
For U-M, it’s the first series sweep over MSU since 2011 — the Wolverines have won six of the last eight meetings — and the largest margin of victory over the Spartans since an 11-point win in 2007.
More importantly, though, it gives U-M (19-7, 11-3 Big Ten) a half-game lead in the conference standings.
Michigan’s final four games are at Purdue, Minnesota, at Illinois and Indiana. None of those teams are is in the top half of the Big Ten standings, but Beilein won’t to take anything for granted after clearing a big hurdle in MSU.
“It’s part of the formula you have to do. You have to beat Michigan State if you’re going to win (the title),” he said. “It does not win us a championship … we’ve got four games to play. What it does right now is put us in position to be in position — that’s all it does.”
Nik Stauskas scored 21 of his 25 points in the second half — including 16 of U-M’s first 20 in the first 10 minutes.
“I just came out with the mindset in the second half that I wasn’t going to be stopped,” said Stauskas, who had five assists. “I tried to be really aggressive and Coach Beilein ran some sets for me to put me in one-on-one positions. Once I made a couple shots, it just kept going for me.”
“It was more of a mental thing for me, just refusing to be stopped.”
Caris LeVert added 23 points, including nine of the final 11 during a critical stretch in the last three minutes of the first half.
Michigan had the lead for only 12 seconds during the first 28 minutes, but grabbed control with a 21-4 run midway through the second half and the Spartans never got closer than eight the rest of the way.
“We got beat by a better team today, No. 1,” MSU coach Tom Izzo said. “They outplayed us the whole second half, I thought.”
MSU’s Gary Harris (21 points) shot 4-of-13 on 3-pointers after going for 27 points in the first meeting, and Adreian Payne, who missed the first game, added 12 points and 11 rebounds, but the Spartans struggled to stop Stauskas and LeVert.
“It’s been a strange year and it doesn't get any stranger than when you go to your rival and shoot 54 percent (field goals) and 40 percent from three and lose,” Izzo said. “That's because we’ve become too much of an offensive team and not as much of a defensive team and eventually that gets you.”
The Spartans (22-6, 11-4) pushed out to a 17-8 lead after back-to-back 3-pointers by Denzel Valentine (13 points) but Derrick Walton Jr. answered with a 3-pointer.
U-M went without a basket for almost four minutes until Spike Albrecht’s triple ignited a 10-0 run, with a 3-pointer and a basket by LeVert and a dunk by Zak Irvin.
MSU had a 9-3 spurt to go ahead, 31-24, at the 2:18 mark, but Michigan finished the half on a 10-5 run, including a 3-pointer by LeVert with one second left, pulling the Wolverines within 36-34 at halftime.
From there, Stauskas took over, scoring U-M’s first six points, along with another streak of seven straight.
The Spartans had their last lead, 52-51, with 10:26 left after a Harris triple, but Stauskas responded with a 3-pointer and Stauskas and LeVert scored the next 13.
“They were a two-headed monster the whole game. It was tough,” Harris said of Stauskas and LeVert. “They hit some tough shots — both of them did.”
Glenn Robinson III (15 points, five rebounds) had a highlight-reel alley-oop from Stauskas, and Michigan made seven of eight free throws in the final 2:04 to seal the win.
“It’s a good win because of who we just beat. Michigan State has been such a tremendous program for so long — for decades,” Beilein said. “For us to be able to beat them is just a terrific accomplishment.”
An even bigger feat awaits the Wolverines — but only if they can manage a strong finish in the final two weeks.