EAST LANSING, Mich. – Ranked in the top-five and hosting an unranked rival, not many thought No. 4 Michigan State could lose to their hated rivals from an hour down the road in their only regular season matchup.
They thought wrong.
The Michigan Wolverines came into the Breslin Center and handed the Spartans their first loss on their home court this season, 82-72. The Spartans lost their second game in a week that also saw them get manhandled by Ohio State and struggle to put away Rutgers.
“This will hurt for a day or two, because this is a big game to me,” MSU coach Tom Izzo said after dropping to 25-16 against his in-state nemesis.
The game was tightly contested from the start. The Spartans (16-3 overall, 4-2 Big Ten) went down low early, as the Wolverines (15-4 overall, 4-2 Big Ten) had no match for the home team’s length. Jaren Jackson scored 19 points on the day and threw down two highlight-reel dunks before sitting out the final 9:05 of the half with two fouls.
“[Miles Bridges] and Jaren were both two guys that were challenged to do more and I thought both of them did in some ways,” Izzo said. “Jaren’s always in so much foul trouble. He got that second one kind of quick, so that delayed that a little bit.”
Michigan answered back with important baskets to stop Spartan runs throughout the contest. The home team never led by more than five all game, and the Wolverines held a lead for most of the first half. The Spartans fought back to hold a 37-34 lead going into the break.
Moe Wagner played sensational basketball for the Wolverines, not showing any signs he was still affected by his right ankle injury from earlier in the season. His career-high 27 points led both teams, but it wasn’t just the volume that made him the best player on the court. He hit two critical three-pointers to slow down Spartan runs.
“Wagner played really well and made all his shots,” Izzo said. “He hasn’t been doing that. Give him credit… He was the difference in the game.”
One came in the first half to give the Wolverines a 16-14 lead after four straight Spartan points, while the other was the Wolverines’ only three-point make of the second half, giving the visitors a 57-55 lead that they would not relinquish for the final 8:10.
“We didn’t cover some of the ball screens the right way, which left him open and got him going,” Jackson said about Wagner.
The Spartans had one last chance to bite into Michigan’s lead. Tum Tum Nairn came in to foul Zavier Simpson, a 52 percent free-throw shooter. He made 1 of 6 free throws to give the Spartans a chance, but missed threes from Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson took the wind out of the Spartans’ sails. The Spartans only made 3-of-13 three’s on the day.
After two losses in three games, the Spartans’ toughness both mentally and physically has come into question. The team’s 18 turnovers were the most since they had 24 in a November win against North Carolina, with many coming on an overmatched fast break that only scored two points all game.
“That’s a pretty good defensive team,” Izzo said. “We were shooting 50 percent all game. We just didn’t get enough shots up because we kept turning the ball over. There were some turnovers they earned, some turnovers we deserved.”
Physically, the Spartans knew they would be in for a tough battle with a hated rival. But after a week where Ohio State handled them down low and Rutgers held a rebounding advantage, the Spartans didn’t change enough to make a difference against the Wolverines.
“We’ve had to become more physical,” Izzo said. “That’s where our youth sometimes gets us.”
With the Big Ten season appearing to turn into more of a dogfight than many anticipated, the Spartans will have to regroup and improve their toughness if they want to make up their two-game hole behind undefeated Purdue and Ohio State.
“Our program is traditionally built on toughness, and that is something that we are lacking right now,” Gavin Schilling said. “We have to dig deep and come up with this toughness that is going to win us some games.”
The Spartans have a rare six-day break before their next game, a home contest against Indiana. Tipoff for Friday is set for 7:00 p.m.
“It is going to be very tough,” Bridges said. “The only way that we are going to get rid of this is by winning a game, and now we have to wait a whole week until we play again. It is going to be tough, but we are going to get through it.”