The game, and control of the Big Ten, teetered as the ball found Matt McQuaid. Michigan’s defense had lost the Spartans’ shooting guard. The senior made the Wolverines pay.
His jumper from the right block found bottom, and Michigan State’s lead grew to eight. With just under four minutes to go in the game, it was all the Spartans needed.
When the buzzer sounded, No. 10 Michigan State (23-5 overall, 14-3 Big Ten) walked off Crisler Center’s court as the first visiting team to win on it since last January. And, with a 77-70 win over No. 7 Michigan (24-4, 13-4), the Spartans gained sole possession of first place in the Big Ten to boot.
After a single-handed try at a comeback by Jordan Poole fell short, with guard Cassius Winston hitting six straight free throws in the last 40 seconds, Michigan’s players walked back to their bench with their heads hung low. The buzzer sounded and they filed through a handshake line replete with disappointment on one side, joy on the other.
The game was chippy. The game was close. The game was everything you’d want from a top-10 matchup of in-state rivals, living up to its billing and then some. And the Wolverines, ultimately, fell short. When freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis arrived in Crisler’s media room afterward, he let out an audible groan.
“It definitely hurts,” Brazdeikis would go on to say. “It felt weird, cause we had the lead. We were up six with like 13 minutes left. And then all of the sudden, we’re down and it didn’t feel right.”
And, for a brief moment, the game was Michigan’s to win.
When McQuaid got called for a personal foul early in the second half with which he disagreed, Michigan State’s shooting guard turned to Tom Izzo in fury. Brazdeikis, who finished with 16 points, turned to a sellout crowd and raised his hands.
Two minutes later, he drove baseline, dunked with two hands and let out a yell as Michigan’s lead extended to six, Izzo called timeout and the crowd roared alongside him.
The game and all that went with it might have tipped there. Instead, it turned.
Izzo told his team not to panic. He told them to make defense and rebounding a calling card. He told them they had proven they could hang. It worked.
“As I tell them, I’m gonna get into everybody who doesn’t do what they’re supposed to do,” Izzo said. “And that’s just the way it is.”
The Spartans’ defense proceeded to clamp down, going over four minutes without allowing a point as they chipped into the lead, retaking it after three free throws from McQuaid following the under-12 timeout.
As that one-point lead became five and minutes mounted, the Wolverines’ offense kept struggling.
“They’ve been a traditional hard-hedge, flat-hedge team,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “They didn’t do any of that today. And so, they’re daring some of our guys to shoot. They’re going underneath things. It threw us off a little bit in our timing.”
In the final 10 minutes, it became clear: The Wolverines had little answer for Winston and no way to score consistently.
Junior guard Zavier Simpson and Winston both played 40 minutes and, unlike previous iterations, Winston got the better of him, scoring 27 with eight assists. After redshirt junior wing Charles Matthews left the game early with an ankle injury, Michigan struggled to find a consistent scorer.
Simpson had 19 points, Brazdeikis 16, but Michigan State switched ball-screens and forced the Wolverines to play 1-on-1. Matthews returned by the end of the first half, but shot just 1-for-8 from the field, creating a hole Michigan was unable to fill.
Despite two teams that came into Sunday with top-10 defenses in adjusted efficiency, points came fast and easy in the early going. When Michigan State seemed to gain separation after a Kenny Goins 3-pointer put it up 27-20, the Wolverines jumped out to an 8-0 run of their own. At halftime, though, the Spartans held a 39-37 lead, and the game felt closer than that.
That tone continued, but on the scoreboard, it was Michigan State pulling away.
Standing at the podium 25 minutes after the game ended, Izzo offered up a harsh, but true assessment of his opponent.
“Michigan didn’t play as good as they’ve been playing. And some of it was that — we had something to do with it — but they had something to do with it.”