No. 14 MSU takes top spot in Big Ten with 86-74 win over No. 8 Wisconsin
Madison, Wis. — Michigan State did some soul searching this week and when it hit the floor at the Kohl Center on Friday night, it delivered one of its best games of the season.
After a week coach Tom Izzo described as hell, when the Spartans got after it in practice unlike they have since probably before the season began, a group that was starting to question itself less than a week ago suddenly looked like the team from earlier in the season, one that rocketed up the national rankings while ripping off nine wins in a row.
Behind some solid defense, balanced scoring and a more typical Michigan State effort on the glass, No. 14 Michigan State knocked off No. 8 Wisconsin, 86-74, to bounce back from last weekend’s loss at home to Northwestern and take over sole possession of first place in the Big Ten ahead of Wisconsin and Illinois.
“Definitely a wake-up call,” freshman Max Christie said. “I mean, you can't drop Big Ten games at home, and that loss to Northwestern sort of woke us up. We came into this game and this was a must-win game for us.
"After we lost to Northwestern, we needed some sort of game to pick up the slack, a big win in general against a great Wisconsin team.
“We came in here planning that we were going to come out with a W.”
Michigan State did just that as five players scored in double figures while the Spartans dominated the glass – winning that battle, 39-20 – and made life difficult for Wisconsin’s two best scorers, Johnny Davis and Brad Davison.
Malik Hall scored 14 to lead the Spartans (15-3, 6-1 Big Ten) while Christie, A.J. Hoggard and Tyson Walker each scored 12. Jaden Akins chipped in 10 as Joey Hauser grabbed 11 rebounds in a return to his home state.
Davis and Davison ended with some impressive numbers and Davison was the best player overall for Wisconsin, scoring 22 and hitting six 3-pointers as he scored 10 in a row at one point in the second half to try and rally the Badgers (15-3, 6-2).
Davis scored 25, but the Spartans made it tough for him the entire game as the Big Ten’s second-leading scorer was 8-for-20 shooting.
“Those are two hellacious players, two of the better players I've seen in this league in Davison and Davis, and I’ve been in the league a long time,” Izzo said. “We did a hell of a job on both of them and they torched us. That’s what great players do.
“We said we’d try to contain the two superstars. I'm not sure we did. Davison hit some tough threes, but I thought we made Davis work for everything and he's just a great player.”
What looked like a miserable start quickly turned around for the Spartans. After Wisconsin took an 8-0 lead as Michigan State turned the ball over on four of its first six possessions, things settled in as Christie and Marcus Bingham hit a pair of triples and Hoggard helped calm things down running the point.
Thanks to some suffocating defense on Davis, Michigan State forced Wisconsin into tough shots for most of the half, including a 1-for-11 stretch that allowed the Spartans to take the lead, 12-11, on a jumper from Akins.
It was all Michigan State from there as a 14-2 run left the Spartans ahead, 20-13, a lead that eventually ballooned to 38-21 after a triple from Christie and a jumper from the baseline by Hall.
“Just come in and bring energy and be a spark,” said Hoggard, who finished with one turnover in 25 minutes. “Just get our guys going again. So just coming in and bringing energy was the key for me, honestly. Taking care of the ball definitely was a big key as well, and just kind of getting guys going offensively.”
Wisconsin got it back to 40-26 before Hall scored on another baseline jumper with a second to play to give Michigan State a 42-26 lead headed to the halftime locker room.
“We came out hot and hit a few shots,” Davison said. “We were getting them to turn the ball over, trying to dictate what we wanted them to do. Then it flipped. They got a lot of transition buckets, a lot of rebound buckets. Once we gave them confidence, a lot of their shots started to fall.”
Davison did his best to pull Wisconsin back into the game to open the second half as the senior scored 10 points in a row for the Badgers, hitting a pair of 3-pointers along the way as Wisconsin was able to trim Michigan State’s lead to 56-45 with 12:34 to play on a drive and layup from Davis.
Michigan State extended the lead to 58-45 before the Badgers went on a 7-0 run to cut the deficit to single digits for the time since late in the first half as the Kohl Center was hopping. But coming out of the timeout, Hall scored four straight as the Spartans pushed their lead to 65-52 with 8:02 to play.
“I felt they were going on a run,” Hall said. “I just wanted to do as much as I could to try and get some momentum back in our favor once that crowd got involved. They got really loud and they started getting on a roll, so I was trying to just do anything to be able to calm that down.”
It proved to be a key stretch as the lead went to 69-55 on a Walker layup before Wisconsin was able to pull within 73-62 on a Davis 3-pointer.
“I thought we could’ve crumbled when they got it down to six,” Izzo said. “You get it down to six or eight and that place started hopping, man, like old times. The ghosts of the past were coming out.
"But the huddles were good and Malik was really good in there, A.J. was really good. We did come up with some big plays, Joey made those free throws in that stretch and really made a difference.
“So I was proud of them for that because this is one of the more hostile environments. This is one of a couple of my favorite places to ever play and it didn't disappoint anybody. It was a hell of a game for us.”
Davison did his best to keep Wisconsin alive, hitting a pair of threes, the second to pull the Badgers within 79-70 with 1:32 left in the game. But Michigan State pulled away down the stretch, putting it away at the free-throw line.
“That was a big win for us,” Izzo said. “No question.”