CHICAGO — Cassius Winston accelerated into the lane and laid in Michigan State’s 47th and 48th points of the day. After being down by 13 points just 10 minutes ago, the Spartans had come back to tie the game with 7:15 to play.
The United Center was filled with tension, and the Big Ten Tournament final had reached a breaking point. This was where Michigan State ran away from Michigan in the first two meetings between the in-state rivals as the Wolverines jacked up bad shots, Winston took over and the momentum sat on the Spartans’ side for good.
But out of a timeout, Matt McQuaid missed a three that would have given Michigan State its first lead since the first half. The Wolverines stormed down the court and finished off a fast break just seconds later with an Ignas Brazdeikis dunk. Forty-five seconds later, Jon Teske hit a layup to provide a four-point cushion.
The Spartans had bared their teeth. They were unable to bite.
But oh, did they keep trying. And eventually, their teeth sunk in.
Michigan State wouldn’t run away this time. Nor would Michigan melt down again. But Winston veered towards the cup and scored over Teske with 25 seconds left, putting the Spartans up for good after a wild, back-and-forth final five minutes, and the Wolverines failed to execute in response. As Michigan State tried to foul, a Jordan Poole 3-pointer with three seconds left that never had a chance was all that could be mustered.
On Sunday, Michigan State (28-6 overall, 16-4 Big Ten) won its second conference championship in eight days, beating Michigan (28-6, 15-5), 65-60, and crushing the Wolverines’ dreams for a third straight title Big Ten Tournament title, while reaffirming its dominance of the conference — and the state of Michigan — with its third win over its archrival.
“We felt really good about ourselves, really confident,” a solemn Brazdeikis said. “But yes, (this was) definitely the toughest (loss to Michigan State) especially because it was the championship game as well.”
Early in the game, Michigan State’s screen-switching defense, spearheaded by athletic big man Xavier Tillman, wasn’t allowing Michigan anything. Guards were discouraged from attacking with Tillman in front, the ball stuck and the Wolverines had no better luck inside.
But with 9:03 to go in the first half and a 17-11 Spartan lead, Tillman was whistled for an illegal screen — his second foul. Michigan took advantage.
Right out of the break, the Wolverines attacked. With two free throws and a layup, Teske bookended a 10-0 run, as Michigan blew the game open and took advantage of ill-equipped backup big men Nick Ward and Thomas Kithier. The Wolverines got penetration from the perimeter and started to knock down good looks while playing their usual lockdown defense. With 1:27 left, Brazdeikis swished a 3-pointer, the final points of the half to put the Wolverines in front, 31-23.
After Michigan stymied Michigan State’s initial second-half surge, the momentum was very much on the Wolverines’ side. Unlike in Ann Arbor or East Lansing, neither team was set to fade down the stretch. A quiet locker room echoed that sentiment — it wasn’t a lack of focus that did Michigan in.
“Absolutely we had poise, we just had lapses at times,” said sophomore guard Eli Brooks. “Wasn’t really a three or four-minute span, it was just one or two plays here or there that kinda just tacked on.”
Just some of those plays: after a Zavier Simpson layup put the Wolverines up 57-52, sophomore guard Jordan Poole fouled McQuaid as he tried to contest a 3-point attempt, and the senior sank all three foul shots. One minute later, with Michigan back up by five thanks to an Isaiah Livers three, McQuaid took advantage of a late closeout — a frequent occurrence Sunday — and took the wind out of the Wolverines’ sails with his sixth three in seven attempts.
Even after Winston’s go-ahead basket, Michigan had one more chance and twenty-five seconds to put everything behind them. Twenty-five seconds to wash away the taste of two straight collapses to its fiercest rival. Twenty-five seconds to win a Big Ten title.
The Wolverines, once again, didn’t execute. The Spartans grabbed the rebound off of Poole’s missed shot, hit three free throws in the final five seconds, and the realization for Michigan sunk in before the buzzer rang and the confetti started to fall.
“Pretty sure we all felt like we were gonna win this game,” said sophomore forward Isaiah Livers. “But like Coach (John Beilein) said, the ball doesn’t roll our way.”
In the Wolverines’ locker room, there was nothing left to say. The game had come down to the wire, and Michigan State had proved its superiority yet again.
“You waste possessions on offense, defense, you’re probably gonna lose,” Beilein said. “I loved the way we fought hard. We stayed in there, we kept our poise for the most part. But it wasn’t good enough to win.”