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East Lansing — It was Senior Day at Michigan State on Sunday, and even bigger than that was the fact the Spartans were presented with an opportunity to get a win that could be a feather in their NCAA Tournament cap.

Like it has for most of the season, Michigan State relied heavily on its youth, the senior class led mostly at this point by just guard Alvin Ellis as Eron Harris is now out for the season and Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter never started it. And like it has begun to do more often in the past couple of weeks, that youth paid off in a big way.

Nick Ward and Miles Bridges — the two freshmen who have produced all season — were the catalysts again as Ward scored 22 and grabbed nine rebounds while Bridges added 17 points and seven rebounds as Michigan State beat No.16 Wisconsin, 84-74, gaining a badly needed signature victory as it continues to build its NCAA Tournament resume heading into the final week of the regular season.

Fellow freshman Cassius Winston scored 10 and handed out eight assists while sophomore Matt McQuaid also had a big game, scoring 15 points for the Spartans (18-11, 10-6 Big Ten), who close the season at Illinois on Wednesday and at Maryland on Saturday. The win moves Michigan State into a three-way tie for third place in the Big Ten with Maryland and Minnesota.

BOX SCORE: Michigan State 84, No. 16 Wisconsin 74

“I’ve learned a lot about this team so far this year,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “Three weeks ago when we played Nebraska I opened up the white elephant and admitted it to you, put the pressure on them and put it on myself and they responded.”

That white elephant, as Izzo calls it, is the 19-year NCAA Tournament streak. He mentioned it that day to his team when it beat Nebraska on the road and it’s been hanging around ever since. On Sunday, it looked like the Spartans have truly embraced the situation they’re in.

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Izzo was able to get injured senior Eron Harris in the game Matt Charboneau

“I told them just now the greatest memory-making moments will be for the next 60 years you’re gonna understand when your back against the wall and you’re neck is on the line you can do one of two things. You can give up or you can grind, and we’ve grinded.

“I’m very proud of them for that.”

Michigan State took advantage of a Wisconsin team that is reeling and has now lost four of five. Nigel Hayes scored 22 for the Badgers (22-7, 11-5) while Bronson Koenig added 17 points and Zak Showalter scored 15.

“This was a big win for us,” Bridges said. “They’re ranked 16th, it’s a big win and we really needed this one. But we have to continue to stay focused. We’ve got two big road games coming up.”

Michigan State jumped out early in the first half, pushing its lead to 13 when Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn hit a running layup with six minutes to play to give the Spartans a 36-23 lead. However, it was all Wisconsin from that point as the Badgers closed the half on a 14-2 run with Michigan State’s only points coming on a goaltending call when Bridges attempted to score on the fast break.

Michigan State grabbed back some of the momentum early in the second half, pushing its lead to 50-43 thanks to back-to-back 3-pointers from Joshua Langford and Bridges. Wisconsin fought back however and went on a 7-2 run before McQuaid hit a pair of free throws to put the Spartans ahead 54-50 with 12:05 to play.

Those points sparked an 11-1 run with Ward and Bridges both on the bench with three fouls each that gave Michigan State a 63-51 lead with 9:22 to play. The lead extended to 68-55 after a McQuaid jumper and a Winston 3-pointer with eight minutes left.

Michigan State led 72-59 after two free throws from Ward but Wisconsin scored the next seven, including a 3-pointer from Koenig to cut the MSU lead to 72-66 with four minutes to play. Michigan State answered, however, with two free throws from Bridges and a 3-point play courtesy of Ward to up 77-66 with 1:44 to play.

“The numbers tell the story,” Wisconsin coach Greg Gard said. “You can’t go 13-for-25 from the line and not be able to convert that along with 17-for-36 in the paint. That puts a premium on everything else when you’re not able to convert at a high level with the ball tight to the rim.

“And they made plays. … Ward, he’s a big body. He's a load. Nine-for-12 vs. 4-for-10 in our five man. That tells it right there."

While Wisconsin is headed in the wrong direction, Michigan State feels like it’s hitting its stride.

“Who knows what will happen,” Izzo said. “I’m not sure I’ll feel comfortable on anything until it happens, but we put ourselves in a position that I can look in the mirror and say we deserved some things.

“I’m proud. That’s the best word I can give. What happens from here, who knows? We still got some games to win.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/mattcharboneau

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