Auburn Hills — Bryn Forbes knew exactly where Mateen Cleaves was sitting on Tuesday night at The Palace.
The former Spartans great was courtside as No. 1 Michigan State was in an overtime battle with Oakland in front of a jam-packed crowd of 20,288, and Forbes was doing everything he could to keep No. 1 Michigan State from suffering its first loss of the season.
With the Spartans clinging to a 93-91 lead and less than a minute on the clock, Forbes took a pass in the corner from Lourawls Nairn and buried a 3-pointer, his seventh of the game. As Forbes raced down the court, he detoured toward Cleaves and gave him an enthusiastic high-five.
“Absolutely (I was looking for him),” Forbes said of his spur-of-the-moment celebration with Cleaves. “He stood up and put out his hand so I found him.”
The shot was the final blow in Michigan State’s 99-93 victory, and it was the last three points of Forbes’ career-high 32. It helped Michigan State improve to 13-0, the best start in school history.
“I don’t know, maybe,” Forbes said when asked if it was the best he’s ever played. “It’s up there. Probably top three, top five. Maybe top one.”
None of it came easy, however. With player of the year candidate Denzel Valentine on the bench following knee surgery on Monday, the Spartans needed to figure out a way to win without their star. Enter Forbes and Eron Harris, who scored 27, the most he’s scored as a Spartan. Michigan State also got 11 points from freshman Deyonta Davis, including five in overtime, as well as 10 points and 11 rebounds from Matt Costello.
But what was most impressive was that Michigan State trailed by 15 at one point in the first half and was down 50-37 at halftime.
“I gotta give my guys credit for fighting back in the second half,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “I’m thrilled we maintained the undefeated season so far, but there are no illusions of grandeur. We’ve got to get much better.”
zzo was far from thrilled that his team gave up 50 first-half points. But much of that was because of the play of Oakland junior Kay Felder. He scored 37 for the Grizzlies (7-4), including 21 in the first half.
Jalen Hayes added 16 points and 11 rebounds for the Grizzlies while Sherron Dorsey-Walker scored 13.
“I told them we might have the best start but it is embarrassing the players before them,” Izzo said of the first-half defense. “I don’t know if we’ve ever given up 50 points in a half. I’m sure there was one time we did, maybe when all my guys were sick or dead or something. That was ridiculous and they could have scored more.
“I don’t have a good explanation. I do know this — a lot of it was poor defense but some of it was great offense. They are a very good offensive team and they came at us early.”
Halftime did wonders for the Spartans, as they came storming back behind Forbes and Harris, who sparked an early 14-4 run that trimmed the Grizzlies lead to 57-53 with just less than 13 minutes to play.
Oakland got the lead back to 60-55, but Forbes got going again and capped a 7-0 Michigan State run with a 3-pointer that gave the Spartans their first lead since the first two minutes. He added a free throw to put MSU up 64-61, but the free throw came at a cost as Forbes was fouled, but pushed his shoulder into Felder and drew a technical foul. Felder made one free throw, then Dorsey-Walker converted a three-point play to put Oakland back in front, 65-64.
Forbes not only heard from Izzo, but Cleaves, too.
“He told me we’re the No. 1 team in the nation and we need to play like it,” Forbes said. “He said, ‘We need you right now, so you can’t make those mistakes.’ ”
That’s when Forbes got help from his teammates. Michigan State went back in front on a 3-pointer from Alvin Ellis followed by a free throw from Nairn and a jumper in the lane from Harris to push the lead to 70-65. After Hayes split a pair of free throws Harris hit another jumper before Hayes put back a Felder miss to make it 72-68 with 5:57 to play.
The teams went back and forth over the next couple of minutes as Harris hit a 3-pointer from the corner but was answered by a runner in the lane from Felder to make it 77-74 with 3:53 to play. Harris then hit a pair of free throws to push it to 79-74, then Forbes missed his first 3-pointer of the game and Costello couldn’t convert on a jump hook.
Oakland took advantage, and after Harris hit a pair of free throws to put MSU up 82-78, Felder made a 3-pointer from the corner to make it 82-81 with 17.1 seconds to play. Costello then split a pair of free throws and Felder drove to the hoop and was fouled, his driving layup bouncing off the rim. He hit two free throws to tie the score at 83 with 4.9 seconds left and neither team got off another shot.
“I don’t know what to say,” Oakland coach Greg Kampe said. “I thought the ball was going in. I thought Felder’s shot at the end was going in and it hung on the thing and fell off. That close. That close to beating the No. 1 team in the country.”
Overtime went back and forth before Davis took the ball in the post and scored to put MSU up, 93-91 with 59 seconds left. Felder then was called for an offensive foul, his fifth, leading to Forbes’ game-clinching 3-pointer.
“I’m proud we found a way to gut it out,” Izzo said. “Somehow, some way I’ve got to figure out a way to give my team a lot of credit. It wasn’t easy. It was a great environment out there.
“We grew some this week. We learned how to play without our superstar. I’m not saying our superstar is the best player in the country, and I’m not saying he’s not, but he might be the most versatile player in the country and we had to adjust every single angle of this game. … We can win without him and we just beat a good team.”