EAST LANSING — Isaiah Livers paused. Then he shook his head.
A reporter had just asked how it felt to get so close to winning the Big Ten regular-season title. The sophomore forward was understandably at a loss.
But the Michigan men’s basketball team wasn’t just close in the sense that, in the last game of the season, it was competing for a conference championship. With three minutes left in the first half, the Wolverines were up 12, the title firmly within their grasp.
And then, methodically, their championship hopes collapsed as Michigan State took over. What began with two steals by junior guard Zavier Simpson and an ice-cold 3-pointer from freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis ended with chants of “Little Sister,” a postgame playing of “One Shining Moment” and a litany of Spartans still on the floor an hour after the buzzer, little pieces of the net tied in their “Big Ten Champions” hats.
Michigan State officially took the lead with 10:47 left in the second half. But the problems began before then.
“What won the game for us was only being down six at halftime,” said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo. “Because it could’ve been 16, and that was a big difference in the game.”
At times, Michigan seemed on the verge of running away with the game, but it never quite broke through. The first crack was foul trouble.
Livers, Brazdeikis and junior center Jon Teske all picked up fouls in the first eight minutes. Teske was sent to the bench. Livers and Brazdeikis stayed in, but two minutes more and they forced Michigan coach John Beilein’s hand by picking up a second.
The rest of the half, a mishmash of freshmen and seldom-used bench players rounded out the rotation. All held their own, but their inexperience prevented the Wolverines from building their lead — and by the end of the half, when the Spartans had whittled the deficit to six, it seemed the lid was about to blow off the pressure cooker.
And when the starters came back in after the half, they were no longer in the same perfect sync.
“You get in foul trouble, it messes up your rhythm,” Livers said. “You finally get back in the game, so when you sit out a long time in the first half, there’s no excuse but we get out there, it’s just, you’re not in the same rhythm as when you left.”
Michigan never got back in its groove. The Wolverines scored 13 points in the first eight minutes, then went seven minutes and 20 seconds without another field goal. It was eerily similar to Feb. 24 in Ann Arbor, when a five-minute field goal drought let a Michigan lead slip away.
In each game, sophomore guard Jordan Poole sunk a few shots to keep things slightly interesting — but both times, it was too little, too late.
With five minutes left on Saturday, Michigan State was up 10. Brazdeikis, the Wolverines’ only reliable scorer, had fouled out just seconds before.
“We haven’t scored (a field goal) in seven minutes,” Livers said. “So I kinda just, it was kinda bad and I feel like at that point, a couple guys started cracking and that’s, can’t do that … against your rival.”
As Michigan struggled to find the basket, Spartan guard Cassius Winston went off, dribbling through defenders and dazzling at the rim en route to 23 points. Forward Xavier Tillman blocked five shots, wreaking havoc when the Wolverines’ smaller guards tried to get to the rim. Michigan’s early energy had fully transferred to Michigan State.
The Wolverines aren’t a team that frequently loses their composure. As Beilein was quick to point out, they’ve won in tough road environments before — Villanova’s Finneran Pavilion, Minnesota’s Williams Arena and Maryland’s Xfinity Center, to name a few. But none of those had the stakes, or the sensory overload, of Saturday’s game at Breslin. And none of those teams were the caliber of the Spartans, who showed in the last matchup just how quickly they can suck the life out of you.
“We did not lose our poise in all seven of our road wins,” Beilein said. “We lost some poise today.”
Michigan was that close, leading the game it needed to win with just over 10 minutes to go. But as the Wolverines’ poise crumbled in the Breslin Center whiteout, what remained of their title hopes slipped through their fingers.