EAST LANSING — With the Michigan men’s basketball team down by nine with 10:32 left in the game, junior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman drained an open three to cut the deficit to six.
On the ensuing Michigan State possession, the Wolverines forced a turnover from Spartan guard Cassius Winston and bolted up the floor.
But with the chance to cut the lead even more, senior guard Derrick Walton Jr. dribbled into a crowded paint, lost the ball and the Spartans regained possession.
The next two Michigan offensive possessions saw more of the same, as senior wing Zak Irvin and Abdur-Rahkman each turned the ball over. Michigan State’s defense forced the Wolverines to turn over the ball on three consecutive possessions in under a minute.
And a minute after that, Spartan forward Miles Bridges slammed home a dunk to put Michigan State up by 12, effectively ending any chance of a Michigan comeback as the Spartans won 70-62 at the Breslin Center on Sunday.
Friday, Walton said the Wolverines had to be “borderline perfect” to win a game on the road. For Michigan, that crucial stretch of possessions in the second half was when it had to be perfect, and it wasn’t.
“There’s been two or three possessions that were not as good as we need to be,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “That’s college basketball. This team’s going to have great challenges on the road, but that’s the way it is.”
After the game, Beilein attributed Michigan State’s defense as a big reason why the Wolverines turned the ball over nine times in the second half — Michigan was averaging just over nine turnovers per game entering Sunday’s contest.
“Their defense was terrific,” Beilein said. “We’ll look at (it), and we’ll try to find a way to do some things better. They’re good at it, and they’ve always been for years and years. When we were able to beat them, our offense was really clicking, and it wasn’t tonight. Credit Michigan State.”
Michigan poses a unique matchup for teams with two big men, as redshirt sophomore forward DJ Wilson and sophomore forward Moritz Wagner both shoot 3-pointers effectively.
But Michigan State came prepared.
The Spartans denied Michigan any “pick-and-pop” shots from the behind the arc, which forced the Wolverines to find other avenues for success.
While Michigan made an adjustment in the second half, evident in Walton nailing two 3-pointers to start the stanza, the Wolverines still didn’t look comfortable.
“They weren’t giving us any catch and shoot threes,” Walton said. “They went home every time we drove. But we made an adjustment in the second half. We just didn’t hit the (shots) that we usually hit.”
The Spartans’ in-your-face defense also forced the Wolverines into quick decisions, which sped up the overall pace of play, another issue that put Michigan off-balance.
“We came to the bench and I told myself and my teammates that I thought we were playing way too fast,” Walton said. “We were getting sped up.”
And with the team’s best “slasher”, Abdur-Rahkman, on the bench with foul trouble for most of the game, the Wolverines had a tough time driving on the Spartans.
Instead, Michigan settled for contested jump shots.
“We took some really tough shots when we were supposed to get to the basket,” Walton said. “We made an adjustment, but I wished we would’ve made it from the jump.”
Added Wagner: “We settled to the point where we thought there would be a bump when there wasn’t. I just think we need to play with better poise and take better shots.”
All in all, Michigan State dialed up the perfect defense to make the Wolverines just uncomfortable enough to put Michigan off its game.
Now, with nine days until the two teams will meet again at Crisler Center, the Wolverines will need to figure out how to break the defense that did just enough to throw them off their game.
“Michigan State is good,” Beilein said. “They’re a good team, whether it’s nine days from now or 29 days from now. It’s going to be a heck of a challenge to beat them.”