Madison, Wis. — With 30 seconds to play on Sunday at the Kohl Center, it looked like Michigan State had done everything it needed to avoid back-to-back losses for the first time this season.
The Spartans held a four-point lead over Wisconsin, despite playing without guard Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn Jr., who is out with plantar fasciitis in his right foot, and getting called for 28 personal fouls that led to 36 Wisconsin free throws.
But when a team is struggling to find the cohesion it had when it won the first 13 games of the season and became the top-ranked team in the country, it’s the little things that can be critical.
And those little things were the difference on Sunday as Wisconsin rallied to beat No. 4 Michigan State, 77-76.
“It hurts, especially after Iowa,” senior center Matt Costello said. “We were trying to bounce back and it just didn’t work out.”
While this game was nothing like the blowout loss to Iowa on Thursday, it was probably more frustrating considering the Spartans (16-3, 3-3 Big Ten) erased a five-point halftime deficit and had the game in their hands.
But after Bronson Koenig nailed a deep 3-pointer with 28 seconds to play to cut Michigan State’s 76-72 lead to one, the breakdowns started coming fast. On the following inbounds, the play was miscommunicated and Eron Harris went the wrong way. The ball was supposed to go to Denzel Valentine, who was open, but instead Javon Bess threw it to Harris in the corner and he stepped out of bounds.
“I was supposed fake one side and go to the other side,” Valentine explained. “Eron went to the other side and I should have went there. We just have to start being more disciplined and listen during the huddles.”
That turnover gave the Badgers (10-9, 2-4) the ball with 22 seconds left and led to the next critical breakdown. The Spartans were planning to switch on the ball screens, but Harris tried to follow Koenig over the screen, leaving Ethan Happ open as he rolled off the screen. Happ went to the basket and took a pass from Koenig that he bobbled before finishing with the winning layup with 10 seconds to play.
Valentine got off an open 3-pointer in the final seconds, but it bounced off the back of the rim.
“I should have communicated better,” Valentine said. “It was a double screen and Koenig came off and I switched but I didn’t really say it, I just assumed he knew. I’ve got to do a better job of communicating and taking over the team.”
Valentine had done his best to take over late in the second half as he finished with 23 points, seven rebounds and five assists while scoring the final five Michigan State points. But his missed free throw with 2:10 to play proved crucial, as did a missed floater in the lane with 55 seconds to play.
That’s when Koenig, who finished with 27 points, hit his final 3-pointer that set into motion the final sequence.
“I just got the ball and ran a double screen high and coming across the screen I could see that Ethan was going to be open because they all ran with me and Vitto (Brown),” Koenig said. “I took a dribble and lofted it over the guy and luckily he caught it and I knew he was going to finish.”
It was especially frustrating for Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, who told his team in the huddle they were switching on the screen.
“Sure enough they come off a double screen and we had it all set up, we just didn’t do what we needed to do,” Izzo said. “They made a good pass and the kid, Happ, made a good finish. But that was completely a breakdown. It was the free safety went right instead of left and that was the difference.”
Costello finished with 18 points and 13 rebounds for Michigan State while Harris scored 14 and Bryn Forbes had 12. Nigel Hayes scored 25 for Wisconsin while Happ added 14.
The finish spoiled what looked like was going to be a gritty road victory as Michigan State went on a 12-2 run to open the second half and turn a 41-36 deficit into a 48-43 lead.
But the Spartans couldn’t hold that lead, either, as Koenig and Hayes teamed up to help the Badgers outscore the Spartans 19-8 over the next five minutes to pull ahead 62-56. The Spartans rallied again and trailed the Badgers, 68-65, with less than five minutes to play. A put-back from Costello on a Valentine miss put the Spartans down one before Valentine stole the ball then fed Forbes for a 3-pointer in the corner to give Michigan State a 70-68 lead with 4:24 to play.
Gavin Schilling split pair free throws with 3:04 to play to give Michigan State a 71-68 lead before Koenig hit a pair to cut the margin to one. That’s when Valentine took over, scoring the next five points, four on a pair of running hooks, as Michigan State went ahead 76-72 in the final minute.
“We haven’t handled adversity very good,” Izzo said. “We’ve got a couple guys that are not like our normal guys, where they’re not as mentally tough. So we’ve struggled. I’ve complained about that when we were winning. We still have a lot of basketball left. We’ll get better.”
Michigan State hosts Nebraska on Wednesday before hosting Maryland on Saturday.
“I’ve played all my four years here on teams that had adversity every single year,” Valentine said. “How you bounce back defines you at the end of the year. Last year we lost 11 games and still made the Final Four, so we’ve got to handle the adversity right and come back and learn from our mistakes.”