Lincoln, Neb. – Michigan State nearly pulled off a miraculous comeback at Nebraska on Saturday, but all that did was make the Spartans' performance in the first half all that more perplexing.
Travis Trice scored a career-high 27 points while Denzel Valentine had 21 points and 11 rebounds and Branden Dawson matched a career-high with 18 rebounds.
But little of that came in the first half as Nebraska raced out to a big lead, taking advantage of 11 Michigan State turnovers, and held on in the final minutes for a 79-77 victory in front of 15,757 at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
"They deserved to win it," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "They deserved to win it by more than they did. If I take a positive out of this game for me, there was none. But if I really stretch my imagination, I'd say we didn't quit. We came back and found a way to make it a game. Not a good game, but a game."
The impressive second half meant little to anyone in the Spartans locker room, even for Trice on his career night.
"I never think about that stuff," Trice said. "I would have been better off if I had negative five points and we still get the win. All I care about is winning. It just sucks, even with the numbers I feel like I should have played better. And the day (Dawson) had, it should have been a monster day for him. Seemed like had 100 rebounds. For him to do that and for us to lose, it sucks."
It was hard to see any potential comeback in the first 20 minutes as Terran Petteway and Shavon Shields combined to torch the Spartans. Petteway scored 15 of his 32 in the first half and Shields had 13 of his 21.
And while the Cornhuskers (12-7, 4-3 Big Ten) were busy making shot after shot, the Spartans were caught up in a sea of misses — including from the free-throw line — in addition to their turnovers.
Trice was just 1-for-7 in the first half and Valentine was 2-for-5 with three turnovers as the Cornhuskers led, 39-25, at the break.
"We can't start off the game like that and expect to win on the road," Valentine said. "It's hard to be losing by 14 at half and come back in a hostile environment like Nebraska and get a win. The next game we can't dig a hole like this."
Michigan State (13-7, 4-3) had a chance to take control in the first half, but a Valentine miss on a 3-pointer that would have given the Spartans the lead midway through the half was followed by two straight 3-pointers from Petteway and Nebraska went on a 15-2 run before Trice hit a 3-pointer, his only basket of the first half.
"Oh man, they got it going tonight," Dawson said of Petteway and Shields. "Coach talked about it, that those two guys would take most of their shots and that is what they did. Petteway got going in the first half and Shields did, too."
Dawson and Izzo both felt the early ejection of Nebraska's Walter Pitchford for an elbow to Matt Costello's head actually made defending the Huskers tougher.
"It was kind of hard for myself with Pitchford out because we were going to switch everything," Dawson said. "With their other bigs (Leslee Smith and Moses Abraham) we didn't want our guards on them. It kind of screwed things up."
The Spartans managed to solve some of their issues in the second half and made two big surges. The first cut the Nebraska lead to 47-41 with 11:54 to play after a 3-pointer by Trice. The Spartans had a chance to cut the Huskers' 49-41 lead to five, but Trice's 3-pointer rattled in and out and Petteway followed with a 3-pointer to push the lead back to 10.
The Spartans had one more run left when Valentine hit a pair of free throws to cut the Nebraska lead to 66-58 and then stole the ball. He fired a 3-pointer that missed but Trice was there to put it back in and make it 66-60.
Tarin Smith made two free throws and the Spartans couldn't convert, nearly ending the comeback hopes. However, Lourawls Nairn made a pair of free throws to cut the deficit to 70-62, then Trice had a steal and followed with a layup to make it 70-64 with 1:15 to play.
Petteway made two free throws to push the Huskers' lead to 72-64 with 1:13 left but Trice then made a deep 3-pointer and was fouled. He made the free throw to put MSU down 72-68 with 1:03 left.
Tai Webster then made two free throws followed by a dunk from Dawson to make it 74-70 with 52.7 left. But Shields made two more free throws and Trice missed from long range
The comeback bid did not end, however, as Michigan State cut it to a three-point game after a three-point play from Trice with 12.6 seconds to play. Petteway made one free throw and Trice converted a layup to make it 79-77 with 2.2 seconds left.
On the following inbound pass, Bryn Forbes grabbed the lob pass but was too far in the backcourt and Michigan State couldn't get off a final shot.
"You gotta give them credit," Izzo said. "The team is shooting 63 percent (from the free-throw line in conference play) and in winning time you learn something about the character of people when you can step up to that line and make big shots and give them credit, they did."
It was Nebraska's second straight win over Michigan State and the Cornhuskers have now four of their last five.
"I'm very happy," Nebraska coach Tim Miles said. "We've done a nice job at home since the Indiana game. We've played really tough. I think our offense is getting better. We made our free throws when it mattered."