INDIANAPOLIS — When the Michigan men’s basketball team won in East Lansing in January, the loss was discounted because Michigan State played without starters Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson.
When the Wolverines won again, this time in Ann Arbor in February, an exhausted Payne played while Dawson was still out.
It wasn’t surprising then, when, in a Big Ten Championship battle of wills, Michigan State — with a healthy Payne and Dawson in tow — simply wanted it more. The Spartans halted a three-game losing streak to their in-state rivals to win the conference tournament, 69-55.
“They were as physical as they could be with us,” said sophomore guard Nik Stauskas, whose jersey was blood-stained thanks to scratches on his biceps and neck.
“They got to all the rebounds, loose balls first. That’s the reason why they won. … It’s maybe a little bit of a reality check.”
The loss dropped Michigan from a near-lock at a No. 1 seed to a No. 2 seed in the Midwest region — widely hailed as the toughest of the four regional brackets — which would send the team back to Indianapolis if it can win its first two games. The Wolverines will meet Wofford in their opening round matchup, with Duke, Kentucky, Louisville and Wichita State looming large as potential roadblocks to the Final Four.
First-half foul trouble put the Wolverines behind the eight ball heading into the break, which was capped by a thunderous dunk by Michigan State guard Gary Harris to extend its lead to 38-29.
After halftime, the Spartans’ (26-8) athleticism picked up right where it left off. Payne scored the half’s first four points, one off of a dunk, and Dawson poured in the ensuing two buckets, including a monstrous windmill slam in transition to cap a 10-0 run with a 46-29 lead.
“They came out in the second half and hit us right in the mouth,” said sophomore point guard Spike Albrecht.
After opening the half trailing by nine, the Wolverines (25-8) failed to cut the deficit to single digits, struggling on both offense and defense while rotating through their pair of foul-troubled forwards. Michigan shot just 6-of-23 from deep and a meager 31.5 percent from the field.
“We just had a hard time executing on offense,” Albrecht said. “We were trying to get two feet in the paint, but they did a really good job defensively building walls.”
Sophomore guard Nik Stauskas, whose two previous games against Michigan State played a large part in his Big Ten Player of the Year award, went quiet after a solid first-half performance. Stauskas scored 13 points in the opening stanza on 3-of-5 shooting from 3-point range, but he was held to just two points after halftime thanks to a 1-of-8 mark from the field.
The Spartans’ talented trio of Dawson, Payne and Harris did nearly all the damage, scoring a combined 48 points — nearly 70 percent of the team’s production. After being held in check in the first half, Payne came up huge in the second to finish with 18 points and nine rebounds. Dawson and Harris each chipped in with 15 points.
The officials set the game’s tone early on. Just 75 seconds into the game, fifth-year senior Jordan Morgan picked up a personal foul and was immediately replaced with redshirt junior forward Jon Horford, who drew his first foul two seconds later. After another foul less than 20 seconds later, Horford too was pulled. Morgan and Horford each picked up an additional foul later in the half, prompting Michigan coach John Beilein to turn to seldom-used redshirt sophomore forward Max Bielfeldt for 12 first-half minutes.
“When I only get to play a half of basketball, it’s kinda difficult,” Morgan said. “I don’t know if it would’ve been the same if I could’ve played.”
Bielfeldt held his own on defense, limiting Payne to just five points, but his clutch performance wasn’t enough to soothe over his head coach.
Moments after the midway point of the half, Beilein picked up his second technical foul of the season — his first came eight days earlier in the team’s home finale against Indiana — after going at official Mike Kitts. Michigan, which leads the nation at just 14.5 fouls per game, was called for 11 first-half fouls, as each team played the period’s final eight minutes in the bonus.
A Wolverine win, which would’ve been the program’s first postseason conference title since the tournament’s inception in 1998, would’ve almost certainly sent them to the No. 1 line in the East bracket. There, Michigan would’ve been handed the region the Spartans were sent to instead, which is said to be the easiest of the four brackets.