East Lansing — For the second straight game, Michigan State had a shot in the final seconds to win.
But for the second straight game, the Spartans were left trying to explain away a loss, this time a 72-71 defeat at the hands of Nebraska on Wednesday at the Breslin Center.
Denzel Valentine got off an uncontested shot that would have been the game-winner, but it hit the front of the rim and fell off as the buzzer sounded. Valentine also had a shot to win at Wisconsin on Sunday, but his 3-pointer bounced off the back iron in another one-point loss.
“Yeah (I thought it had a chance),” Valentine said. “But I kind of shot it bad again just like at Wisconsin. We probably didn’t deserve to win that game the way we played with the mistakes we made down the stretch. So it is what it is.”
What it is for No. 11 Michigan State (16-4, 3-4 Big Ten) is a third straight loss for the first time since 2013. It’s been a remarkable fall for a team that was No. 1 in the country for four weeks and opened the season with 13 straight victories. The Spartans are now below .500 in Big Ten play for the first time since 2011 and stand at 3-4 for the first time since 2003.
After sending Wisconsin to the free throw line 39 times on Sunday, Michigan State was determined not to foul on Wednesday. It only gave up 14 free throws to the Cornhuskers, but they took advantage by driving over and over again and shooting 50 percent from the field.
Spartans have now lost three straight
It was one final drive from Shavon Shields, who scored 28 for Nebraska, that proved to be the difference. His bucket with 17 seconds to play gave the Huskers a 72-68 lead.
Valentine, who finished with 24, hit a desperation three with 5.2 seconds to play to cut the margin to one before grabbing the rebound of a missed free throw from Tai Webster and racing down the court before missing the final shot.
“We’re struggling to find much of anything consistent right now,” senior Matt Costello said. “We play well enough at times then boneheaded enough to lose sometimes. We’ve got to figure out how to win games again.”
Finding that winning touch will be difficult with Maryland coming to town on Saturday, and the Terrapins will be keen to what the rest of the Big Ten is starting to realize – Michigan State is ripe for the taking.
“There’s blood in the water right now,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “So the sharks are coming. We’re going to have to have blood in the water the other way and that’s kind of what you have to do.”
Michigan State hurt itself with poor defense on Wednesday – Nebraska was the first team to shoot 50 percent against the Spartans this season – as well as with some key turnovers late and a 12-for-21 performance at the free-throw line.
The key stretch came just as Michigan State looked like it was about to put some separation between itself and Nebraska after Valentine nailed two straight 3-pointers to put the Spartans up, 56-51, with 11:57 to play. But Shields answered with a tough runner in the lane and Valentine threw the ball away, leading to a 3-pointer from Jack McVeigh that tied the game at 56.
The Huskers continued to take control of the game as Webster hit an uncontested jumper then found McVeigh in the corner for another 3-pointer. Shields then converted a three-point play to close a 13-0 run and give Nebraska a 64-56 lead with 8:35 to play.
“When you’ve got a lead, you’ve got to take care of the ball, you can’t make bad decisions, and we did,” Izzo said. “When that happens, that lead went from four or five up to six or seven down like that. When those things happen, we’ve got to be smarter than that. That’s going to fall on my shoulders.”
Nebraska, which is on a four-game win streak in the Big Ten, has won three straight over Michigan State and two in a row in East Lansing. Glynn Watson Jr. scored 13 for Nebraska (12-8, 4-3) while Tai Webster added 10.
“He was terrific all night,” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said of Shields. “I’m really proud of him. He got banged pretty hard and the first thing he said to me was, ‘Coach, I’m gonna need a day off.’
“He’s a senior and I think he’s an All-Big Ten player and he played like it. He made huge plays over and over and over.”
Eron Harris scored 14 points for Michigan State while Deyonta Davis added 13. Costello had eight points and 10 rebounds but hurt his ankle early in the second half.
He said he’d be fine, instead focusing on trying to get his team back on the right track before Saturday.
“Teams are coming at us now,” he said. “They see an opportunity and see us bleeding, so they’re coming at us hard. We’ve got to figure out a way to play better.”