Improbable Purdue loss reignites Michigan State's Big Ten banner hopes
East Lansing — It was about an hour after No. 9 Michigan State had beaten Nebraska on Tuesday night and the Spartans players were milling around the locker room.
Some were at their lockers being interviewed, others were out in the hallway talking to family and friends. A few more were grabbing their postgame meal and packing things up.
Most of the talk surrounded the 91-76 victory that included career-highs from Kenny Goins (24 points) and Matt McQuaid (22). The two seniors were the stars as they’re Michigan State careers entered the final week of their last regular season.
But something else was happening, and it slowly started to draw the attention of most in the room. Connected to the locker room is a player’s lounge with a large television, which was tuned to Purdue-Minnesota. It mattered to the Spartans. A Purdue loss meant there was a three-way tie atop the Big Ten with the Michigan State, Purdue and Michigan.
A loud cheer was heard from the lounge and Xavier Tillman walked quickly to the door. He peered at the big-screen TV. Minnesota was up six in the final minutes.
“Who’s playing?” freshman Gabe Brown said.
“Minnesota-Purdue,” was the response.
“Oooh,” Brown reacted, jumping out of his chair to check out the action.
One by one, Michigan State’s players started to become aware that Minnesota might pull it off and rekindle the Spartans’ championship hopes, hopes they thought were dashed with last weekend’s loss at Indiana.
Goins then made his way to the lounge. Cassius Winston kept asking for scoring updates.
By the time the game was in the final minute, there was at least half the team, staffers, media and family crowded in the lounge. Winston, Brown, Goins, Thomas Kithier, Aaron Henry, Marcus Bingham. They were all locked on the screen.
When Amir Coffey hit the final two free throws to give Minnesota the four-point win, there were a few cheers, plenty of smiles and one declaration.
“Let’s go get it on Saturday.”
It wasn’t clear who said it, but the message was obvious. Michigan State talked the other day about getting some help. The Spartans got it and now they have a chance at the title.
Michigan State has battled injuries all season and it did so again on Tuesday.
Junior wing Kyle Ahrens sat out after reaggravating his back injury Saturday at Indiana while junior center Nick Ward missed fourth game with a broken hand. On top of that, Winston and Goins were both sharing a heating pad on their knees at times during the game.
“Just fifth-year pain, I guess,” Goins said.
Added Winston, “I felt it tonight. I banged it one play and I felt it through the game, so I was trying to do everything I could for my team and get everyone involved.”
It was a sight coach Tom Izzo is getting used to this season.
“I looked at my bench and everybody had knee packs on,” Izzo said. “But none of that matters now. We made it to the last game and I said, ‘Now you play dead. Worry about it the next day, but you play dead’ and that’s kind of what we’re gonna do.”
Whether Ahrens or Ward will be ready for Saturday’s 8 p.m. tip against Michigan remains to be seen.
“We're gonna see what happens with Ahrens,” Izzo said. “Couple more days of rest, see what happens. Nick, I still don't see him playing, but I do see him start to practice this week, end of the week and see what happens there. I think you've got to look at us that we're gonna play the guys we got, hopefully plus Ahrens, and play as hard as we can play.”
There were plenty of individual milestones for the Spartans on Tuesday.
In addition to Goins and McQuaid scoring their career highs, freshman Aaron Henry had a career-best 15 points on 5-for-8 shooting. It was only the second time this season Henry scored in double figures after he had 12 against Maryland in January.
Freshman Thomas Kithier played 18 minutes, matching his career high, while the 21:46 for Gabe Brown was also the most for the freshman.
… Walk-on Brock Washington scored his first career-points, converting a three-point play in the final minute.
Big Ten title picture
Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue are all 15-4 in the Big Ten with one conference game remaining in the regular season.
Michigan: Will earn the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten tournament and at least a share of the Big Ten regular-season championship by defeating Michigan State on Saturday night (8 p.m., ESPN).
Michigan State: Will earn the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten tournament and at least a share of the Big Ten regular-season championship by defeating Michigan on Saturday night.
Purdue: Plays at Northwestern on Saturday (2:30 p.m., BTN). If Northwestern wins, the Michigan-Michigan State winner claims the outright Big Ten championship.
If Purdue wins, the Boliermakers share the Big Ten title with the UM-MSU winner. If that winner is UM, then UM earns the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten tournament based on a 1-0 head-to-head record over Purdue. If that winner is MSU, then MSU earns the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten tournament based on a 2-0 record over Michigan. (The head-to-head tiebreaker is skipped since MSU and Purdue split their regular-season series 1-1.)