Charles Matthews heaved up a shot that clanked off the front of the rim. It was Michigan’s third straight missed three.
With just over a minute left in the game and Michigan State up by nine, a contingent of Spartan fans began chanting “Go green, go white!” as those clad in maize and blue began streaming for the exits.
It was an about-face from the scene just 14 minutes earlier. Freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis got the ball on a fast-break, drove to the hoop and flushed it in right over Michigan State’s Kenny Goins, putting the Wolverines up by six and bringing the crowd to its feet.
But after that, the Spartans called timeout. Michigan didn’t score for five minutes. And the complexion of the game changed completely, resulting in a 77-70 Spartan win.
“We’re just trying to run our stuff,” said junior center Jon Teske. “We just weren’t getting open shots. We weren’t getting good looks and like I said, just give credit to their defense, they did really well.”
Out of the timeout, Michigan State’s defense threw the Wolverines for a loop. Spartan coach Tom Izzo doesn’t usually switch ball screens, but on Sunday, he did. Michigan State forced Michigan into one-on-one situations, daring someone to make a shot.
No one did.
“It’s tough because basketball’s about making those shots,” Brazdeikis said. “And we didn’t make them today.”
Junior guard Zavier Simpson seemingly stopped the bleeding with a driving layup that put the Wolverines up one with 10:34 remaining. But for five minutes and three seconds, the only points Michigan scored came on two free throws from redshirt junior wing Charles Matthews. By then, the Spartans were up seven.
“You gotta take good shots,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “And I think our shot selection is better than it was earlier in the year, but you’ve gotta take good shots at that time, but when we’re in the one-on-one situations right now, we’ve gotta be more effective with it. We have certain habits that are not good for some one-on-one situations.”
Scoring droughts like that are nothing new for the Wolverines; they happen in almost every game. But Michigan State is a team well-equipped to take advantage of those stretches. When Michigan idled, the Spartans hit the gas.
The Wolverines tried to get the ball to Simpson. He missed two threes. They tried to get it to Matthews and Brazdeikis. They missed, too. They tried to get it to Teske, and all they could do was watch as his attempted layup slid over the basket.
Finally, less than a minute to go and the deficit at eight, they tried sophomore guard Jordan Poole — who shot poorly all game and got himself into foul trouble. But Poole’s made those shots before.
Somehow, Poole swished a 3-pointer and then another — the latter from well beyond the arc, an improbable shot that sparked hope of an improbable comeback.
After an intentional foul, Poole got the ball back. But the third time wasn’t the charm. From there, the Spartans made their free throws to make the lead near insurmountable. Michigan’s only basket in the last 30 seconds came on a Simpson layup with eight seconds left — one Michigan State didn’t even bother defending.
“We tried a whole bunch of stuff,” Beilein said. “But they just had a really good defense today and we could not get the leverage that we normally can create with certain styles of defense.”
The Wolverines lost a mid-January matchup at Wisconsin because they couldn’t make big shots down the stretch. That’s an easy symptom to diagnose. But against the Spartans, Michigan — Poole specifically — came up clutch in the end.
It was the middle that was the problem.