NEW YORK — Michigan State has been clutch when it’s mattered most this season. A change of venue and a bigger stage didn’t change that on Friday.
The top-seeded Spartans defeated No. 9 seed Wisconsin 63-60 on Friday in the Big Ten tournament at Madison Square Garden to win their 13th straight contest, advancing to face No. 5 seed Michigan on Saturday afternoon.
The three-point win over the Badgers marks MSU’s second straight single-digit win over Wisconsin (15-18 overall) in the last week and third overall win against them this season.
“If we (continue in) this tournament or in the next tournament, there’s probably going to be a lot of close games,” head coach Tom Izzo said postgame. “Couple of years ago we won by 15 in a lot of these games and we weren’t ready for a close game.”
But this season, Michigan State (29-3 overall) has thrived with the game on the line. They’re 9-0 in games decided by single digits.
Izzo spoke to Villanova head coach Jay Wright on the phone following the No. 4 Wildcats’ close win over Seton Hall Wednesday. Wright told him he’d rather win close than blow a team out by 20.
“I told him he was freakin’ crazy when I talked to him,” Izzo said of Wright. “But I kind of understood his point. In other words, yesterday there’s four games in single digit numbers, and that’s kind of the way the NCAA Tournament is going to be.”
But Izzo isn’t the only one who understands that when the calendar turns to the month of March, the intensity ratchets up, resulting in close games.
“We know how to win, especially close games,” sophomore Josh Langford said after scoring four points in 32 minutes against Wisconsin. “It teaches us. And you’ll definitely see those close games come tournament time. Big Ten Tournament, NCAA Tournament … it teaches us how to close out and win games. I think that’s helped us a lot.”
Fellow sophomore Miles Bridges, who returned to East Lansing this year in hopes of delivering a national championship to MSU, thinks the close results will be beneficial in the long run.
“I definitely feel like it’s going to help us,” Bridges said of the close results after dropping 20 points on 7-for-15 shooting. “Even in this tournament, there’s going to be a lot of these games. And for us to have that experience, winning those games, I feel like it’ll be good for us.”
Last season, Michigan State had a record of 8-9 in games decided by single digits. Besting that total by one win and not having a loss to boot is a huge improvement for the Spartans.
“We didn’t do a good job last year in close games,” senior co-captain Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn Jr. said. ”But (now), we’re able to get stops, get rebounds and make shots when we need to. So I think it’s definitely going to help us down the stretch.”
“Every game is not going to be easy. And especially at this time of year, it’s money time. Every team is going to have their scouting reports down. They’re going to know our tendencies and we’ve just gotta prepare ourselves for it.” –Nick Ward
Sophomore Nick Ward (eight points in 15 minutes) said MSU’s preparation and execution doesn’t really change just because the calendar does, but the urgency down the stretch is magnified.
“Every game is not going to be easy,” Ward said. “And especially at this time of year, it’s money time. Every team is going to have their scouting reports down. They’re going to know our tendencies and we’ve just gotta prepare ourselves for it.”
Michigan State’s school-record 28 regular season wins didn’t come from a lack of confidence throughout the season. And Langford understands that however the box score reads after the clock hits triple zeros, it won’t be for a lack of fight from his squad.
“The thought process isn’t to go out there and play them close,” Langford said. “But if it happens, we know how to scrap and fight back and get a win […] this team has really great chemistry off the court, which comes onto the court. We know how to stick together in tough times. We’ve had plenty of adverse moments throughout the season. It’s really made us become closer.”
No matter how you slice it, a win is a win. MSU has consistently gotten the job done down the stretch this season.
“You know, I remember Jud (Heathcote) saying to me one time that a win is when you win by one,” Izzo recounted. “A real good game, you win by two. And a blowout, you win by three … and I don’t think it’s quite that way.”
They’ll look to continue their stellar season on Saturday afternoon against Michigan, who defeated No. 4 seed Nebraska 77-58 on Friday afternoon.
The Wolverines beat the Spartans in East Lansing 82-72 in their one prior meeting this season. Tip-off is scheduled for 2 p.m. ET with television coverage on CBS.