EAST LANSING — After a blistering offensive performance against Indiana on Thursday, the Michigan men’s basketball team (4-5 Big Ten, 14-8 overall) headed to the Breslin Center, eager to bring its hot shooting along with it. But while the Wolverines’ offense has carried them this season, their defense, particularly from the perimeter, has cost them dearly.
It came back to bite them once again Sunday against Michigan State (5-4, 13-9), as the Spartans shot 45 percent from three and opened up a nine-point lead midway through the second half — a deficit that Michigan could not overcome in a 70-62 loss.
Though Michigan State had been down by one with 15 minutes left in the game, the Spartans went on a 12-5 run in the span of five minutes — bookended by 3-pointers from guard Matt McQuaid — to take a 54-45 lead. In a back-and-forth bout between two evenly-matched teams, the run turned out to be the knockout blow, and the Wolverines managed just five points from the floor the rest of the way.
“We just really couldn’t get good looks,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “They just shut down a lot of the things that we do, they had a great defensive plan, and it worked really well.”
Michigan also scored six free-throws down the stretch, all courtesy of senior guard Derrick Walton Jr., who had come alive in the second half. One of just four Wolverines who hails from the state of Michigan, Walton made it abundantly clear Friday that he was eager to take on Michigan State, and his efforts on the floor Sunday showed it.
“I think he understands this rivalry probably as good as anybody out there,” Beilein said.
With Walton leading the charge, Michigan turned around its offensive fortunes. He opened the stanza with back-to-back 3-pointers to tie the game at 34, and he pushed the pace on offense in the hope that his teammates would do the same.
“I know this team looks at me as a leader,” Walton said. “When I play and show the face that, ‘It’s time to win’ I think they follow suit. … I just try to exude it by playing hard and smart.”
While he finished with a game-high 24 points and nearly notched a double-double with nine rebounds, the rest of the Wolverines couldn’t seem to shoot their way out of the funk. They finished the game shooting just 34 percent from the floor and 27 percent from beyond the arc — a dramatic drop from their last game when they shot 63 and 55 percent, respectively.
If a single trend has emerged from Michigan’s performances this season, it’s that when sophomore forward Moritz Wagner finds himself in foul trouble in the early stages of the game, the Wolverines’ offense struggles to find a groove.
That trend continued against the Spartans, as Wagner played just seven minutes of the first half. He picked up a quick foul just two minutes into the game, and later picked up his second with eight minutes left in the half.
“He’s got a high skill level, and it allows us to flow through some things,” Beilein said. “But he is also learning defensively, so he’s still a work-in-progress. … At times, he makes our offense and our defense much better.”
Wagner’s replacement, senior forward Mark Donnal, managed to keep the Wolverines in the game, though, scoring a team-high seven points in the first half to help Michigan enter the halftime break facing just a four-point deficit.
But while the Wolverines held on in the early stages of the second half, Michigan State turned it on in a flash and never looked back. The Spartans were led by freshman forward Miles Bridges, who notched a double-double with 15 points and 13 rebounds. In reality, it was more of the same from Bridges, who already led the team in both scoring and rebounding with an average of 16.4 and 8.1 per game, respectively.
Though Michigan had begun to turn its conference season around with wins over Illinois and Indiana this past week, an entirely different challenge awaited the Wolverines inside the Breslin Center.
Michigan State may not have been having the season that many expected, not to mention that it had just lost three consecutive games to Ohio State, Indiana and Purdue, but the rivalry game brought out a different energy altogether in both the players and the fans. Spartan coach Tom Izzo stated after the game that the crowd made a huge difference and that his players fed off their enthusiasm.
Midway through the second half, the Spartans took their big swing, and Michigan simply couldn’t recover.