Kalin Lucas wasn’t going to go down without a fight, and by the end of Michigan’s 70-63 win over the Spartans on Saturday, it almost came to just that.
Playing in his last regular season game of his career — staring down the distinct possibility that his team could be swept by the hated rival Wolverines in his senior year — Lucas turned it up a notch in the second half. The point guard exploded for 23 points in the frame, finishing with 25 for the game to lead all scorers.
But in the end, Lucas’s efforts were wasted, and his frustration came to a head after the final buzzer. He and his counterpart — Michigan sophomore point guard Darius Morris, who played through illness — had jawed at each other for stretches of the afternoon.
Lucas took exception to whatever Morris yelled at the visiting team, following his game-ending coast-to-coast layup with the Spartans appearing to lay off. Lucas responded by throwing the ball at him, causing a small tussle that Michigan’s Jordan Dumars broke up as the teams shook hands.
“I’m not for that, so I’ll straighten that out,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said after the game. “But at the same time, going for a layup with three seconds left — (Morris) talked a lot of stuff all game, including at our place, so maybe he deserved it.”
Izzo then emphatically pounded the podium while addressing the rivalry. For his part, Michigan coach John Beilein said he didn’t see the incident, as he was already heading to the handshake line, and that he would look into it. The two players also later downplayed the confrontation.
Most will probably just remember the altercation going forward, but Lucas’s second-half performance can’t be overlooked. The senior went 3-for-5 from deep and was a perfect 8-for-8 from the free throw line in the half.
And it seemed like every shot he hit was big, either stopping a Wolverine run before it could take off, or building momentum for his own team.
Lucas scored nine straight points for Michigan State shortly after the break to keep his team in the game, and his two free throws with 5:48 remaining cut the deficit to just two points at 56-54 — the closest the Spartans would get the rest of the game.
“He’s got his quickness back now,” sophomore guard Matt Vogrich said. “He’s really quick, and he’s playing at the rate he played at (in 2008-09) when he was Player of the Year in the conference. He’s tough to stop.”
Lucas’s final campaign has been somewhat of a disappointment. Picked as Preseason Big Ten Player of the Year, he won’t even be First Team All-Big Ten in a season marked by his return from a torn Achilles tendon.
But Lucas still came into Saturday’s game averaging 16.7 points per game, and as freshman forward Evan Smotrycz pointed out after the contest, Lucas spearheaded Michigan State’s charge in the teams’ initial meeting on Jan. 27, also leading all scorers then with 27 points.
And Lucas has a history of making clutch shots, including the game-winning jumper at Crisler Arena last season.
So it was no surprise that Izzo put the ball in his point guard’s hands to lead the comeback effort. In the second half, the Spartan offense consisted mostly of weave action at the top of the key followed by a ball screen, leading to Lucas penetrating or, sometimes, him getting open by running off a screen away from the ball.
“Coach Izzo started calling a lot of plays just for him, trying to get everybody involved to get him open shots,” Morris said. “With a player like that … he’s just a great player, and he made shots.”
Lucas’s shots were usually challenged, too, but fell anyway. Earlier in the season, the Wolverines may have gotten rattled in the face of such an onslaught, but ultimately, they kept their composure and held on to win.
Saturday may have represented a changing of the guard in the Big Ten point guard hierarchy, with Lucas exiting and Morris only rising. But it was also proof of Michigan’s new maturity. The veteran Lucas — playing with teammates with Final Four experience — had been there before, but still couldn’t pull off the win.
“At this point in the season, there’s no freshmen anymore,” junior guard/forward Zack Novak said. “Everybody’s got experience. The guys handled it great.”