Opponents attempting foul tactics against Spartans

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Branden Dawson takes the ball up amid a forest of Buckeye defenders' arms.

Chicago — Teams are starting to employ an interesting tactic when trying to make a comeback against Michigan State these days — Hack-a-Spartan.

Considering the Spartans were the worst free-throw shooting team in the Big Ten during the regular season, it's a logical approach. Ohio State did exactly that on Friday in Michigan State's 76-67 victory in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament at the United Center.

With the Spartans lead dwindling in the final minutes, Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine both missed front ends of one-and-ones. And after Ohio State cut the lead to 60-53, it turned to fouling.

First the Buckeyes went after freshman Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn, but after he split a pair it was all Trice and Valentine at the line, and they did just enough as Michigan State made eight of its final 10 free throws.

"If you look at our free-throw percentage, I'd do the same thing," Trice said. "But I felt like guys did a good job. Tum knocked some down and Denzel knocked some down, so I feel like we answered the bell."

Michigan State was just 11-for-18 for the game but Trice was 5-for-7 and Valentine was 2-for-3.

It's been an issue all season for Michigan State and Izzo is sure it has cost his team four or five games. And while he understands the importance of free throws in March, he's through stressing over it.

"I'm not worried about it," he said. "I've got some guys who aren't as good free-throw shooters. I feel comfortable how we're shooting them in practice. I feel comfortable when a Travis and a Zel and a Branden (Dawson) are at the line. I believe in them. I'm done complaining about it because it doesn't matter. We're going to have to either make some FT or we're going to have to be even better defensively. We have to find a way to win and that's all we're looking for."

A dose of Dawson

The victory over Ohio State marked the return to the lineup of Dawson, who missed the regular-season finale at Indiana with concussion-like symptoms.

He was no worse for wear on Friday, scoring 14 points, grabbing eight rebounds and handing out seven assists in 30 minutes.

"I feel good," Dawson said. "I actually feel better than I thought I would, but Coach kept giving me rest and I kept telling him I was ready to go back in. To play 30 minutes tonight, I feel well."

The time off didn't hurt, not only for Dawson but for the rest of the team.

"Brandon was really good but he did get tired in that second half," Izzo said. "They get rest and get refreshed but if you give them too much rest, are they in as good a shape? This week was good for us; they practiced hard and practiced well. We gave them time off and we accomplished everything we wanted to accomplish."

But a healthy Dawson made a big difference, as it has much of the season.

"You see how much of a difference he makes for us," Trice said. "Without him we don't win tonight. When he brings that energy he is a different player."

Coaching milestones

It has been a milestone couple of days for both coaches.

The win gives Izzo 23 all-time tournament victories, moving him one ahead of Ohio State coach Thad Matta, who became that school's winningest on Thursday when the Buckeyes beat Minnesota.

That was his 298th win and moved him ahead of Fred Taylor. It also gave him 400 career wins — he coached one season at Butler and three at Xavier before coming to Ohio State in 2004.

Slam dunks

Over the previous six games, Trice was averaging 20.8 points and 5.2 assists, highlighted by a 27-point performance in last week's victory over Purdue.

The senior point guard entered Friday's game just four points shy of becoming the 47th player in Michigan State history to score 1,000 points. He finished with 18 and now has 1,014, good for 47th in MSU history.

… Michigan State is 12-7 overall at the United Center and 10-6 in the Big Ten tournament. The last appearance for the Spartans before Friday was in last year's Champions Classic when, as the No. 2 team in the nation, they knocked off No. 1 Kentucky, 78-74.

… Michigan State entered the game averaging 17 assists, which leads the Big Ten. On Friday, the Spartans finished with 23 assists on 29 baskets.