Wojo: Izzo's Spartans deliver stirring reminder — don't count us out

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Michigan State's Kenny Goins, Xavier Tillman and Aaron Henry begin to celebrate as the clock ticks down to a 77-70 Spartans' victory.

Ann Arbor — The Spartans were teetering, the crowd was jumping, the noise was thumping. This was the moment they could’ve buckled, down six early in the second half, just like they could’ve buckled with the injury news last week, just like they could’ve buckled a few times.

Not here, not in a game Michigan State desperately wanted, and went ahead and took. Not when Cassius Winston is controlling the action like it’s a video game and he’s the only guy with a joystick. Not when Tom Izzo has the full attention of a dwindling band of healthy players, who have no choice but to listen, and full motivation to do so.

Just when you think this series — or this season — is headed in one direction, you’re reminded why it’s become one of college basketball’s best, streaky rivalries. The Spartans executed their game plan to perfection, and exposed Michigan’s imperfections, in a 77-70 victory Sunday at the Crisler Center.

The Wolverines didn’t throw this away, that’s unfair to the Spartans’ shrewd, shredding defense. Did Michigan feel the pressure of a first-place battle it was supposed to win? Maybe. The Wolverines hit only 7 of 26 3-point shots, and rarely looked comfortable running their offense, which has been a continuing malady.

More to the point, Michigan State applied pressure, changing up its defense, switching ball screens and forcing the Wolverines to drive, rather than find open 3s. Rivals generally bring out the best in rivals, and adversity often brings out the best in Izzo’s teams. In that regard, this response shouldn’t have surprised anyone.

Michigan State (23-5, 14-3) and Michigan (24-4, 13-4) came into the game tied atop the Big Ten, with Purdue just behind, only the third top-10 clash between the old foes. The Wolverines had won the last three meetings by double digits, and Zavier Simpson had outplayed Winston the past two games.

Injuries mount

Then came the latest Michigan State injury last week, as Nick Ward joined Joshua Langford on the bench. For all those reasons, this was a classic Spartan Special, concocted by Izzo and his staff and implemented by a tough-minded bunch surrounding a fantastic point guard. Simpson (19 points) wasn’t bad at all, but Winston was great, with 27 points, eight rebounds and 13-for-14 free-throw shooting. Both played 40 minutes, and with Winston in control, the Spartans committed only six turnovers.

With only slight prodding, Izzo even called it his most momentous victory in the rivalry, as he nudged his record to 12-9 against John Beilein.

 “Under the circumstances, it is the biggest win, yeah, I really do think so,” Izzo said. “Long way to go yet, and we’re very vulnerable because our margin for error is small. But to beat a team like this on their home court on a day like this is special.”

It began as a festive afternoon, with the crowd blanketed in maize and the 1989 national championship team in attendance, including Steve Fisher, who hadn’t been back since 1997. Everyone received warm applause, perhaps the loudest for Glen Rice, the shooting star of that team.

The cheers reached a crescendo with 15:32 left, when Ignas Brazdeikis drove the baseline and threw down a dunk, and Michigan seemed to be edging away, 51-45. Izzo called a timeout, delivered a fiery face-to-face critique to Matt McQuaid for missed defensive assignments, and over the next 13 minutes, the Spartans went on a 24-9 run.

Izzo said McQuaid went “brain dead on me,” then played terrifically. Winston said the timeout message was, “Don’t let our defense fail us now.”

The Spartans did things the Wolverines didn’t expect. And Winston did things everyone now expects.

“The guys knew the struggles I’ve had with this team before, they knew how big a game it was for me, and we all wanted it really bad for more reasons than just the game,” Winston said. “We were short on men, on really talented players, and we got to figure out ways to win. That’s just us sticking together, getting tighter through this.”

Cleverly played

It was so masterful, Beilein couldn’t really get upset afterward. He stayed upbeat, knowing the teams meet again in the regular-season finale March 9 in East Lansing, although both have two games in between, and the championship is still to be decided.

“There's so much more to our season than beating Michigan State, and I know that hurts some of our fans who love this game,” Beilein said. “We've had some success. They had some success. We have two incredible programs in this state and everybody should be very happy they can witness something like that — for us about 30 minutes, and of course, the Michigan State fans for 40."

Michigan’s shooters struggled — Jordan Poole was 5-for-13, Charles Matthews was 1-for-8 — but again, they heaped credit on Michigan State’s defensive change-up. On the flip side, virtually every Michigan State role player fulfilled his role, from Kenny Goins (16 points, 11 rebounds) to Xavier Tillman to McQuaid to the strategizing assistant coaches.

Offensive inconsistencies and depth have been a problem for Michigan, and the Spartans exploited it. They didn’t need an otherworldly performance to do so, just maximum effort and concentration.

Some people may have been surprised by the outcome, considering Michigan had won 22 straight home games. Obviously, Izzo was not one of them. This may not be the type of situation he likes — dealing with injuries — but this certainly is the type of team he likes, adaptable and coachable.

“I don’t need to be an underdog anymore, those days are over,” Izzo said. “I don’t need anybody to feel sorry for us, those days are over. Michigan didn’t play as good as they’ve been playing, and we had something to do with it. But they had something to do with it too. … Do me a favor, when you put it in all the blogs and Twitters, give us credit for the win, but we did not conquer the world.”

They didn’t shock the world either, and didn’t even shock themselves. The Spartans did what they often do under Izzo — when it appears they might buckle, they instead buckle up.

Twitter: @bobwojnowski