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Wolverines knock off Spartans for sole possession of Big Ten lead

By Daniel Wasserman, Daily Sports Editor
Published February 23, 2014

For the sixth time in eight tries, the Michigan men’s basketball team beat the school that used to rule in-state basketball.

The Wolverines’ 79-70 win — their fourth straight home win over Michigan State — gives them control of their own destiny in the race for Big Ten supremacy in what could be the program’s first outright Big Ten championship since 1985-86.

“It’s part of the formula. You have to beat Michigan State if you’re going to win,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “No, it does not win us a championship, it doesn’t put us in position — no, we have four games to play. What it does do now is just put us in position to be in position.”

With the game hanging in the balance midway through the second half, Michigan’s best players — sophomore guards Nik Stauskas and Caris LeVert — took over.

Trailing 48-43 with a little more than 14 minutes remaining, Stauskas caught fire, scoring seven consecutive points to give Michigan its first lead of the afternoon. Despite a Spartan basket on the ensuing possession, the Wolverines (11-3 Big Ten, 19-7 overall) never looked back.

Stauskas, who has struggled ever since blowing kisses to the Breslin Center crowd after a win in East Lansing on Jan. 25, hardly missed in the second half. The sophomore guard spurred a 21-4 run — including a stretch of 13 straight Michigan points — to give the Wolverines their biggest lead of the day, 64-52. The sophomore scored 21 second-half points, including the first 11 of the run and 14 of the first 16. LeVert contributed the other five, including a 3-pointer and dunk — each in transition — to send the fans at a sold-out Crisler Center into a frenzy.

“It’s been a while since we’ve actually at the same time been hot,” Stauskas said. “The last couple games have been him carrying the load, so for both us to be on our games today was great.”

The 25-point effort on 9-of-13 shooting was a much-needed performance from Stauskas with just two weeks remaining before postseason play begins. In six games since his 19-point performance at Michigan State, Stauskas topped 12 points just twice as Michigan dropped its first three Big Ten games.

“I just came out with mindset in the second half that I wasn’t going to be stopped,” Stauskas said. “Once I made a couple shots, it just kept going from there.

“I think it was a mental thing for me — refusing to be stopped.”

But in the early going, it looked like it would be much of the same for Stauskas and the offense. Though the Mississauga, Ont. native made two of his three field goals, he was held to a meager four points in the first half while Michigan struggled at times to generate offense.

The Spartans (11-4, 22-6) led for almost the entire first half, including an 11-point advantage at the second official timeout.

But out of the stoppage, Michigan stormed back with a 10-0 run thanks to five points from LeVert, who also picked center Adreian Payne’s pocket midway through the run that turned into a crowd-igniting dunk from freshman guard Zak Irvin.

LeVert’s play in the opening stanza — he led all scorers with 14 first-half points and finished with 23 — kept the otherwise-dormant Wolverines alive.

“He’s been clicking lately. He’s one of our best players at getting to the paint and finishing,” said fifth-year senior forward Jordan Morgan. “For him to continue to play aggressively and play confidently, it’s a difference-maker for this team.”

After Spartan guard Gary Harris, who finished with a team-high 21 points, scored a layup with five seconds left in the first half to put Michigan State up, 36-31, LeVert beat everyone down the floor. The sophomore guard’s hustle was rewarded, and he let go of a wide-open 3-pointer and turned around to sprint to the locker room.

LeVert may not have seen it, but the shot hit twine, cutting the Wolverines’ deficit to two at the break.

“I knew it was in, so I ran to the locker room,” LeVert said. “I think it was a great shot. … That carried into the second half as well.”

It did, as Stauskas evened up the game out of the break and Michigan never trailed by more than four afterward.

The Wolverines turned the ball over just three times and turned 13 Spartan turnovers into 14 points — a key difference maker that not only softened the blow of Michigan State’s 54-percent mark from the field, but also allowed Michigan to get out into transition and play in the upbeat tempo in which it thrives.

But the Wolverines slowed it down in the final moments to run out the clock and seal the regular-season sweep of Michigan State.