ANN ARBOR, Mich – Slow starts on the road — that’s the trend with the No. 16 Michigan State Spartans lately. They did just that in Ann Arbor on Saturday as they faced their in-state rival Michigan Wolverines and lost 77-68.
Preventing turnovers was a priority going into this matchup. Coach Tom Izzo has emphasized it over and over, and Michigan State already had five in the first six minutes of the game. This was concerning as the game wasn’t even through the first half. The other problem was keeping Michigan’s Zavier Simpson off the ball. He shot four 3-pointers with a team-high 16 points. The Wolverines stayed aggressive throughout the game and emphasized their physicality.
“It’s just bodies after bodies. That’s what’s hard,” MSU big man Xavier Tillman said. “In the first half, I was good, strong cutouts, stuff like that. Whoever came in the second half, it just kind of wore me down after a while. So I just gotta do better at staying mentally tough.”
Neither team could connect at the start, shooting a combined 2-17 from the field. The score was tied at 3-3. Michigan began taking control of the glass early with a 12-7 rebound advantage. Just nearly as problematic as the turnovers, the Spartans had given up five offensive rebounds. Six of Michigan’s nine points were second-chance at that point, and it was clear the Wolverines’ defense was much better than the last time they played Michigan State on Jan. 5.
Michigan State was still down 9-3 with now six turnovers with 11:45 remaining in the first half. The Spartans began putting together an 8-2 run to cut Michigan’s lead to just three. Four of those points were from Tillman, making the score 16-13.
If the Wolverines’ continuous lead throughout this first half wasn’t enough, they continued to execute from the outside when Simpson shot not one wide-open 3-pointer, but two of them to bring their lead up 22-13. They weren’t done there — Isaiah Livers came in from the right side with a 3-pointer of his own.
With people wondering where MSU’s Cassius Winston was at, he finally hit his first 3-point shot with 3:55 left in the first after he went nearly 16 minutes without a basket. The team looked lost without Winston’s leadership as it trailed into halftime 29-23. It goes to show that the next man up was necessary for the Spartans going into the second half.
The second half began and it looked like Michigan State came out more aggressively. A foul on Michigan’s Franz Wagner led Aaron Henry to the charity stripe where he made two free throws to close in the gap even more, 29-25. Free throws continued to fall in for Michigan State as Tillman knocked in two. At that point, the Spartans were 16-of-17 from the line and it became a one-point ball game of 31-30. With about five minutes underway, a 3-pointer from Henry at the outside right broke Michigan State’s 0-of-6 start from three. Michigan continued to lead by one, 39-38. This was the fourth time Michigan State had pulled within one point in two and a half minutes.
An in-flight catch for an alley-oop from Michigan’s Jon Teske brought the Crisler Center into a frenzy. This was the energy that was felt the entire game from the Wolverines, but Teske really brought it all together with his power move as they were still on top 46-40.
Winston and Tillman began to look tired as the only ones putting in points and trying to stay aggressive on the glass. It was a battle back and forth between both teams — Michigan fighting to stay on top, with Michigan State trying to get to the top. Michigan’s Brandon Johns Jr. grabbed an offensive rebound and his putback put Michigan up 58-46. The Wolverines continued to push and not let the Spartans take the lead on this one. Michigan went back ahead by 11, but Winston cut it back to single digits with a 3-pointer. Livers scored to extend it to double digits once again.
Simpson took his fourth 3-pointer of the game, putting Michigan up by nine with four minutes left. Simpson had only made four or more 3-pointers three times in his 137-game college career, and what more perfect time to do that than in this rivalry game?
It continued to be all about Michigan as it had been the entire game due to Michigan State’s early first half slump. Winston had one last 3-pointer to make the final score 77-68.
“We’re just making some poor decisions,” Izzo said after the game. “We’re working on it, but a lot of good basketball left. We’ll try to improve. We’ve been in every game but one.”
The Spartans are now on a three-game losing streak and have lost four of the last five on the road. Next up, they go on the road again for a matchup on Tuesday, Feb. 11 at Illinois. Tip-off is set for 9 p.m.
Natalie Kerwin is a men’s basketball beat reporter for Impact 89FM WDBM. Follow her on Twitter at @NatalieKerwin1.