East Lansing — On Saturday afternoon, as Michigan State's current players celebrated on the floor and a large group of its former players did the same from the stands, Tom Izzo could only crack a smile.
Michigan State had just earned a 59-56 victory over Ohio State, a game it desperately needed to bolster its NCAA Tournament resume. It came thanks to a 3-pointer from Denzel Valentine with 3.2 seconds to play.
But that came after a drive to the hoop and layup from Travis Trice. And that was after a pair of free throws from Branden Dawson.
As Izzo said, "it just all went like it's supposed to go."
It hasn't been like that much this season as Michigan State (17-8, 8-4 Big Ten) has had its share of ups and downs, most of it because its top three players have rarely been on the same page. But they were when it counted against the Buckeyes, the first ranked team the Spartans have beaten this season.
"Your seniors, your upperclassman have got to play well to have a great season," Izzo said. "Boy at the right time they did. Because we were in some trouble. … my three best players come through."
But none came up bigger than Valentine — fittingly on Valentine's Day.
He was the spark early for Michigan State, but when he left the game early in the second half with his third foul, the Spartans' nine-point lead disappeared. He returned just in time.
His triple with 3:57 to play gave Michigan State a 52-51 lead, and after Trice and Dawson chipped in and Ohio State's Sam Thompson tied the game with a 3-pointer with 36 seconds to play, it was time for Valentine to step up once again.
"That's what I wanted," Valentine said. "That's why I came here. That's why I work so hard — night, morning, noon. That is why I work so hard so I can be in that position."
It punctuated what many called a must-win for the Spartans and was just the latest in a long line of tight games between the two. In fact, six of the last seven meetings have been decided by four points or less.
"I think you can literally start your own classics channel from the last few years of Ohio State versus Michigan State games," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. "The endings have been incredible. They made some big plays, a couple more big plays than we did. Give Valentine credit — that was an incredible shot. I thought we had them right where we wanted them in terms of how the action developed, and he shoots off the back foot and it goes in."
It wasn't as improbable as Matta described it considering Valentine was 5-for-9 from 3-point range for the game and scored six of Michigan State's last 10 points. He got plenty of help from Dawson, who had 15 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks. Trice and Matt Costello added nine points each.
It was the eighth double-double this season for Dawson, and that had the admiration of Matta.
"I think of all the great players I've coached against and he's one of them," Matta said.
He and Valentine teamed up to slow down Ohio State freshman D'Angelo Russell and hold him to just 10 points on 4-for-13 shooting.
"I thought we did a very good job on Russell," Izzo said. "You could argue it, but I'm not sure, I think he is maybe the best player in this league. He's so hard to guard. We worked with Dawson on him, with (Lourawls Nairn) on him, we worked with Denzel on him. And Denzel is starting to take the challenge of guarding the best players and I thought he did a good job."
Shannon Scott scored 15 to lead Ohio State (19-7, 8-5) while Jae'Sean Tate and Thompson added 10 points each.
Early in the second half, it looked like Michigan State would cruise, leading 38-29 after a Valentine 3-pointer. But with 15:54 to play, he left with his third foul and the Buckeyes came storming back. They went on a 10-2 run to cut the lead to one and eventually tied the game at 46 after a turnover by Trice that resulted in a dunk from Thompson with eight minutes left in the game. The Buckeyes grabbed their first lead since the first half when their 10th offensive rebound led to a jumper from Scott and a 49-47 lead with 5:19 to play.
A short jumper in the lane by Nairn tied it at 49 before Russell nailed a jumper over Valentine to put Ohio State back in front.
That's when Valentine hit his 3-pointer to give the Spartans a 52-51 lead with 3:57 left, and after a defensive stop, Dawson was at the line with 3:18 to play.
"I told him he was going to make them, because that's what seniors do," Izzo said. "I could just do nothing but smile when Dawson made his free throws. It was just kind of one of those moments I'll probably remember for a long time."
Then it was Trice's turn. After Amir Williams cut the MSU lead to 54-53 with 1:40 to play, Trice got to the basket and made it a three-point lead again. And after Thompson tied it, Valentine put the finishing touches on the victory.
"We needed it," Trice said. "There have been other games this year where coming down the stretch all three of us didn't play well. To finish a game like that was big for us, for all three of us to contribute and win at the end."
And now the focus turns to Michigan on Tuesday and continuing to push for that NCAA bid.
But not before one last reflection from Izzo, who continued to praise his top three — Valentine, Trice and Dawson — over how the final minutes Saturday played out.
"Valentine did it on Valentine's Day," Izzo said. "How much more can you ask for poetic justice the last three minutes?"