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East Lansing โ€” Through the nonconference portion of the season and even into the Big Ten opener, there was one obvious issue Michigan State was having in close games.

The Spartans simply couldn't finish.

The second game of the season โ€” a 10-point loss to Duke โ€” was the only possible exception, but through the conference-opening double-overtime loss to Maryland, every loss followed the same theme. Michigan State was in tight battles with Kansas, Notre Dame and Texas Southern, but instead of making the big play, the Spartans walked away with close losses.

There were different reasons each time. Against Kansas, the Spartans were ailing and couldn't hit a shot. At Notre Dame, it was the defense that couldn't get the job done and the loss to Texas Southern was a complete collapse.

But things have started to change in the last couple of weeks with further evidence coming in Wednesday's 66-60 victory over Penn State. It was far from a perfect game, but the Spartans managed to pull out the victory.

"We're gonna have to play better, but I think we will," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "I think this is a shot in the arm where we found a way to win games. Early in the year we found ways to lose games and we're gonna build on this."

Michigan State first discovered the winning touch at Iowa on Jan. 8, turning an 11-point halftime deficit into a 75-61 victory, before closing out that week with an overtime victory over Northwestern on Jan. 11.

And while last weekend's loss to Maryland was never really close, the Spartans rebounded with a tight victory over the Nittany Lions.

"We're figuring out how to win," junior Matt Costello said. "It was ugly, still, but I think we're getting better. We've just got to keep pushing."

In the win over Penn State, there were some familiar issues. Much like the loss at Maryland, Michigan State had trouble hitting its open shots against Penn State.

But late in the game, the Spartans hit the shots they needed, getting three 3-pointers from Bryn Forbes while Denzel Valentine hit a contested layup and a pull-up jumper in the lane in the final minutes. It came during a stretch when the teams went back and forth, the game being tied seven times in the final minutes.

But Michigan State never trailed, and when it counted most, it was the defense that put the game away.

While D.J. Newbill was busy lighting up Michigan State for 27 points, Izzo gave Branden Dawson the defensive assignment in the final minutes. And it paid off as Dawson got two blocks in the final minutes, the last leading to a Travis Trice layup that put the game away with 50 seconds to play.

"That series was great for us," Dawson said. "We've been having trouble just closing games out towards the end. We just did a great job defensively, we stayed together, stayed poised. A lot of guys stepped up tonight for us."

It wasn't lost on Penn State coach Patrick Chambers.

"I know they were hurting from that Maryland game," Chambers said. "They came back, they played extremely hard, tough and physical. It's exactly what I expected and then they made the big plays down the stretch. Rebounds, Dawson played very good defense on D.J. Newbill, Forbes hits a huge three, Valentine hits a huge 12-foot jumper in our zone. That was a great game."

The Spartans hope it's just the beginning of a long stretch of victories with a game at Nebraska coming on Saturday.

And even though Izzo wondered early in the week if his team had the mental toughness to make a run, he's confident the performance of his best players will improve.

"We're gonna get a little better and the guys I need to play better have played better," he said. "I'm not looking for a pipeline dream or getting blood out of a rock or something, I'm trying to get stuff that has already happened. We'll do that. They'll get better and it's gonna have to to play well (at Nebraska)."

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/mattcharboneau

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