EAST LANSING — The battle of the senior captains has officially gone Green.
Before Sunday afternoon, Michigan guard Zack Novak and Michigan State forward Draymond Green were tied 3-3 in the in-state rivalry over their careers. But after losing the last three contests in the series, Green salvaged his final regular-season game against the Wolverines, with his Spartans winning handily at the Breslin Center, 64-54.
The Michigan State defense smothered Michigan’s offense all game long, holding the Wolverines to under 40-percent shooting from the field and their second-lowest scoring total of the season.
Ultimately, it was Green’s day. The Spartan captain could not be stopped in the second half, and he finished the game with a double-double on 14 points and 16 boards, matching Michigan’s rebounding total by himself. Any questions about the health of his left knee, which he sprained late in the second half at Illinois on Tuesday, were completely erased.
“I couldn’t even tell he was hurt,” said freshman point guard Trey Burke. “He hit some big shots down there. He got to the rim a lot, got to the line a lot. He looked better than he usually does.”
“He has a huge desire,” added senior guard Stu Douglass. “A lot of rebounding is just a lot of want. You can tell he’s hungry for the boards, he’s hungry to get extra possessions on the offensive end and get offensive boards. You really just got to match that intensity.”
The atmosphere inside the Breslin Center at tip-off was electric, but neither offense was able to feed off it early on. The first bucket of the contest didn’t come for two-and-a-half minutes, a layup from Michigan State guard Branden Dawson. Michigan didn’t get on the scoreboard until a little over five minutes in, when Burke hit a running floater in the lane to tie the game at 2-2.
After the first media timeout, Michigan State (7-3 Big Ten, 18-5 overall) settled into a groove on the offensive end with a balanced scoring effort, and eight Spartans went into the locker room with first-half points. They attacked the Wolverines underneath, recognizing that Michigan’s post defense has been relatively weak all season long.
The Wolverines (7-4, 17-7) looked stagnant on offense in the first half, and at one point, they trailed by as many as 14. From the set offense, Michigan was hardly able to penetrate the Spartan defense, and coach John Beilein had to rely heavily on his perimeter shooters. Novak, Burke and Douglass combined for 4-for-9 shooting from behind the arc in the first half.
Burke’s conversion was particularly clutch, as he nailed a triple from the top of the key in the final seconds of the half, cutting Michigan’s deficit to a manageable eight points.
But the Spartan defense stymied the Michigan offense in the beginning of the second half just as well as it did in the first. The Wolverines didn’t score until redshirt sophomore forward Jordan Morgan hit a pair of free throws four minutes into the half. They didn’t score from the field until about a minute later.
Meanwhile, Michigan State capitalized on the offensive end, opening up a 16-point lead by the 12:57 mark. And the Spartans received some help from a rare meltdown from Beilein, who got called for a technical foul for arguing a travel call on Novak — a sub-par gift for the coach’s 59th birthday. Michigan State guard Austin Thornton knocked down both free throws.
“He was just trying to protect us,” Douglass said. “Have I ever seen him like that before? I don’t know. I don’t even know if he’s gotten a technical since I’ve been here.”
A few minutes later, Spartan coach Tom Izzo was called for a technical of his own for arguing with refs in the middle of a Michigan possession. Novak hit one of the two free throws.
But in the end, the game was not about the coaches — it was a battle between the senior captains looking to put their personal stamps on the heated rivalry. Both Novak and Green scored a game-high 14 points.
“I’ve heard people talking about (personal records against Michigan State),” Douglass said. “We’ve won three of the last four games, so that’s not too bad. We might actually see them in the Big Ten Tournament, and we’re looking forward to that. We have a lot of respect for them — it’s a lot of fun playing them.”