Hauser plays the hero against Minnesota and Michigan State couldn't be happier

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — It was an image many might not have expected to see this season, Michigan State forward Joey Hauser mobbed by teammates as he entered the Spartans’ locker room, soaked in water by the time he emerged from the chaos.

It’s what happens when you make the winning shot as the final second tick off of the clock, exactly what Hauser did on Wednesday in No. 10 Michigan State’s 71-69 victory over Minnesota at the Breslin Center, the ninth in a row for the Spartans.

“I'm just really happy,” Hauser said. “It was a broken play and the ball ended up in my hands. I just kind of appreciate the trust from my teammates and then seeing all my teammates come and just dump the water on me and hug me all the way back to the handshake line. It just really was a cool moment.”

Michigan State forward Joey Hauser drives the ball around Minnesota forward Jamison Battle during the second half.

Cool, indeed, for the Spartans and for Hauser. Michigan State didn’t play a great game, but it was a win. And odds are it was just one of those nights in the Big Ten for the Spartans.

“That's kind of how the Big Ten goes when you play an opponent twice,” Hauser said. “They scout you, they know what plays they want to run, they know mismatches they want to take advantage of.”

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That’s true and a similar scenario could play out on Saturday as Michigan State hosts Northwestern, only 12 days after the Spartans last played the Wildcats, a six-point win for MSU in Evanston, Illinois.

What took place in the final seconds Wednesday quickly became more about Michigan State finding a way to win a game that it played OK in, but hardly one where the Spartans were in control.

This was more about Hauser. Winning a game at the buzzer is cool, and Hauser couldn’t recall a time before when he had scored on the final shot for the win.

“I definitely haven't had one in college,” he said. “It might be the first one.”

But the fact it was Hauser, a player who has over the last two seasons become the convenient scapegoat whenever things go wrong for the Spartans, made it even bigger. And to see Hauser’s teammates appear even more elated than the laid-back senior showed everyone all they needed to know about what he means to the Spartans.

“He’s one of our brothers,” said guard A.J. Hoggard, who dished the ball off to Hauser for the decisive bucket. “We trust him down the stretch and all of us are so close-knit. It was his first game winner in college. Everyone always wants to hit a game winner, especially at a level like this, and especially us being targeted right now, being top 10. It was big for us, and kept the winning streak going.

“I was happy for him, I was excited and glad I got to be a part of it being the assist man on the job, so it was a good moment for me, too.”

What it all meant to the Spartans (14-2, 5-0 Big Ten) was clear in the celebration. As coach Tom Izzo pointed out, his team carried on like they won a national championship. However, it wasn’t simply because they beat Minnesota on a random night in January.

“It wasn't the game I think as much as the situation,” Izzo said, “and that was pretty cool.”

Michigan State’s players would have been just as happy if it was anyone else on the roster who made the final shot. In fact, the first option was senior Gabe Brown, but the play crumbled quickly. And freshman Max Christie had the ball in his hands before getting it back to Hoggard, who was cutting toward the basket.

But it was Hauser, the player who has had his share of struggles since transferring from Marquette, who ended up with it. He had some big moments early last season before his play began to falter in a difficult season. Much was expected of Hauser, and when the Spartans struggled to make the NCAA Tournament, he took plenty of heat.

That didn’t change to open this season. While Michigan State was winning, Hauser still wasn’t scoring the way many expected him to.  On top of that, he seemed unsure of himself on the court, turning the ball over three times in back-to-back games against Butler and Loyola and doing so again three games later against Louisville.

It was around that time Izzo and his staff told Hauser to worry about everything but scoring. Play defense, rebound, set good screens, move the ball. The hope was the offense would come.

Well, it’s worked. Hauser has quietly become one of Michigan State’s most important pieces, and over the final 10-plus minutes on Wednesday, it was Hauser’s game front and center.

“Joey deserves that moment, 100%,” Christie said. “He works his tail off … He's just done all the little things for himself and by no means has he hurt the team at all.”

The Spartans will need it even more as the season progresses. After the Northwestern game Saturday, four of the next five are on the road and the margin for error shrinks. If Hauser can continue to rebound and defend and manage to hit a few 3-pointers and take care of the ball, all the better for MSU.

Based on what took place on Wednesday, it appears he’s at least headed in that direction.

“I was happy for Joey, and I think more than me being happy for Joey, the players are happy for Joey,” Izzo said. “I appreciate all the fans that chanted his name, as long as none of them were the ones that were writing the (negative) stuff they wrote last year. If they were, they can take a leap. But if not, I appreciate those guys, because the kid has done a lot of the little things for us this year, and he's definitely getting better.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau