CHICAGO — Isaiah Livers sat barefoot in front of his locker. The normally effervescent sophomore forward had his eyes trained down, his voice quiet as he explained how Michigan overcommitted to the pick-and-roll between Michigan State’s Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman, leaving Matt McQuaid open on the wing.
McQuaid took advantage, scoring 27 points on 8-for-15 shooting and — more importantly — 7-for-13 from three. Those 27 points provided the backbone of the Spartans’ 65-60 win over the Wolverines in the Big Ten Tournament final Sunday to complete the season sweep.
“He did a really good job today,” Livers said. “I’m actually kind of — I’m really proud of him.”
It couldn’t have been an easy sentiment to express, not with emotions running as high as they were. But after the game McQuaid had, all that was left for Livers to do was tip his cap.
Just an hour earlier, Livers had nailed a 3-pointer that gave Michigan a five-point lead with two-and-a-half minutes left. But McQuaid answered on the other end, hitting a three of his own.
When asked about the shot, Livers was silent for a second. He sighed deeply. Then, he said simply, “Sucked the life right out of me.”
Michigan didn’t score again.
The first two times the Wolverines lost to Michigan State, the main problem was Winston. The Spartans’ point guard had gotten everything he wanted at the rim and dished out assist after assist when he couldn’t. Both times, Winston unquestionably beat junior guard Zavier Simpson, asserting his status as the Big Ten’s top point guard.
This time, Winston wasn’t the focal point. He scored 14 points but shot just 5-for-13 from the field and gave up six points and 10 assists to Simpson on the other end. Michigan had its sights set on stopping Winston, but Winston had his eyes on another target.
Time and time again, the Wolverines helped on Winston. They helped on Tillman. They helped off McQuaid. Winston gave the ball to McQuaid. McQuaid made Michigan pay.
“Of course you think it’s going to be Cassius again,” said sophomore guard Eli Brooks. “You pay a lot of attention to detail to him but we just gave McQuaid too many open shots, we gave him shots that nobody should be able to have.”
And while the last two games were personal to Winston in his quest to avenge last year’s sweep at the hands of Michigan, this one was, perhaps, even more personal for McQuaid. This was, after all, his senior year. This was his last ride in the Big Ten Tournament, his last chance to have a March moment.
His freshman year, he barely played en route to a Big Ten Tournament title for the Spartans. The next two years, Michigan State didn’t sniff the title game. All three, it made an early exit in March Madness — not advancing past the second round. This year is McQuaid’s last shot to change the narrative.
It became even more personal when Kyle Ahrens — one of McQuaid’s best friends, a redshirt junior who fought through debilitating injuries to get on the court and help his team — went down with an ugly ankle injury with four and a half minutes left in the first half.
In the moments before Ahrens was carried out on a stretcher, McQuaid held Ahrens close.
“I love you, bro,” McQuaid said. “We got this. We got this.”
Then he let Ahrens go.
Just seconds after play resumed, McQuaid drained a three that found nothing but net.
“That,” he said, “was for my boy.”
It was only after that moment when emotions ran high and Michigan State seemed shaken, that McQuaid really found his groove. He hit five more 3-pointers and was fouled shooting another, draining all three free throws to cut a five-point deficit to two.
Meanwhile, the Wolverines couldn’t find a Matt McQuaid of their own, a guy who had the chemistry going, a guy who could get open at any time, knock down a shot at any time. Freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis played that role at times, finishing with 19 points and four 3-pointers, but Brazdeikis is a freshman, sometimes prone to mistakes. He missed five of his last six shots, right as the Spartans began to find a rhythm.
But McQuaid, the seasoned senior, was there when his team needed him.
“College basketball needs more Matt McQuaid seniors out there,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “So that teams can really win.”
McQuaid’s seven threes were about more than just him. They were about Ahrens and about Winston, about his team and his last hurrah. And as a reward, there they all were in the locker room after the game, the trophy in the center.
Maybe McQuaid willed it into existence.