EAST LANSING — In the dead of winter, four young men stood at the front of the Michigan State student section behind the baseline at the Breslin Center. Their chests read: 1181.
It was the total number of days since a Michigan football or men’s basketball team beat Michigan State.
But at the end of the game all they could do was grab their shirts and head for the exits as the Wolverines (2-6 Big Ten, 12-9 overall) ended that drought and made those numbers a thing of the past.
With Michigan’s 61-57 win, the Wolverines snapped a six-game losing streak and picked up the Michigan men’s basketball team’s first win over the Spartans since 2007.
The young squad showed a poise that’s been missing in close games as the Wolverines built upon a seven-point halftime lead over No. 25 Michigan State (4-4, 12-8).
The Spartans’ poor shooting and their struggle to finish easy buckets under the basket sealed the deal for the Wolverines. Despite shooting 44 percent from the floor, Michigan State missed several layups and put-backs. And the Spartans only hit five shots from behind the arc the entire game.
Junior guard Zack Novak hit six.
It was Novak’s four first-half 3-pointers that gave the Wolverines the cushion heading into the break, but he came out even more on fire in the second half hitting two more shots, finishing with 19 points.
“It was one of those nights,” Novak said after the game, unable to hide his smile after coming out of a locker room that was raucous with shouts of ‘The Victors.’
Sophomore point guard Darius Morris added 17 points and eight assists — the most assists he’s had since the Wolverines traveled to Indiana two weeks ago.
But even with Morris’ and Novak’s monster games, the Wolverines never put the game out of reach. With under two minutes remaining in the game, the Spartans cut Michigan’s once 14-point lead to a meager two points when senior guard Kalin Lucas drew a foul and converted on the additional point from the charity stripe.
Michigan was unable to convert on the ensuing play and the Spartans found themselves in a position to steal back the lead. Michigan State’s Keith Appling shot a 3-pointer from the right wing that just barely dinged off the rim and redshirt freshman Jordan Morgan corralled the ball.
It was his only rebound of the game.
Morgan’s performance was representative of the post play on the boards. For the second-straight game, the Michigan frontcourt struggled to find its stride, calling upon the guards to clean up the glass for most of the game — who collectively accounted for 90 percent of the Wolverines’ rebounds.
Following Morgan’s rebound and a Michigan timeout, the Wolverines ran down the shot clock and Morris drove the lane and kicked it to an open Stu Douglass who hit a quick-release 3-pointer from the right wing to give Michigan a five point lead with under 20 seconds.
“(I’ve hit) some big shots (before), but for the situation, the location and time of season and just the team that we have, it was a big shot,” said Douglass, who said he knew it was going in when it left his hands.
The win was the Wolverines’ first win over a ranked opponent and just their second Big Ten win. With this victory under Michigan’s belt, it returns to Ann Arbor to face Iowa, who is dwelling alongside the Wolverines at the bottom of the conference.
But the upset provides the Wolverines with a burst of confidence as they round the midway point of the conference slate. And it snaps a six-game losing streak.
“I think after the third or fourth or fifth loss of that streak we were kind of hoping too much and not putting forth the execution or putting forth the work in practice,” Douglass said after the game. “We kind of told ourselves we were but we really weren’t doing 100 percent.
“And we busted our butts in practice and it paid off.”
That work has given the Wolverines another victory but it’s also given them a new number, maybe one that could be painted on Michigan students’ chests — 37.
Because when the two teams face off against each other at Crisler Arena, that will be the number of days since a Spartan team has defeated the Michigan men’s basketball team.