EAST LANSING — The Michigan State Spartans entered Sunday’s rivalry matchup firmly on the bubble to make the NCAA Tournament. They left the matchup on Sunday feeling a lot better about their tournament chances after a 70-64 victory over No. 2 Michigan. MSU sophomore guard Rocket Watts led all scorers with 21 points and was the X-factor for MSU all game long.
The biggest shot of the game, however, belonged to MSU senior Joshua Langford. Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson converted an and-one to pull the Wolverines within two in the final couple minutes. Langford, who had struggled all night long with foul trouble, stepped into a 3-pointer on the right wing and drilled the shot over the outstretched arm of Chaundee Brown. Following the shot, the Wolverines were never closer than four points.
The Spartans took a four-point lead into the half as Watts and Joey Hauser combined for 20 of MSU’s 30 first-half points.
Watts was the go-to guy for the Spartans during the game and he stepped up. Watts put in 21 points on 8-of-16 from the floor. This was the same Rocket Watts that was leading MSU down the stretch last season alongside Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman Sr.
“Words can’t explain how proud I am of (Watts),” Langford said. “Just for him to have this game tonight, it’s special man.”
Aaron Henry scored 18 points for the Spartans and hit the magic number. The Spartans are 9-1 in Big Ten play when Henry scores 15 points or more. They are 0-10 when he doesn’t.
MSU controlled the game defensively and led the entire second half. Dickinson and Franz Wagner scored the majority of the Wolverines’ points late in the game, but combined to shoot 8-of-22 from the floor with five turnovers. MSU committed only eight turnovers.
A big turning point in the game was an early injury to Michigan’s Eli Brooks. The senior guard went down with an ankle injury with the Wolverines leading by two points just over four minutes into the game. The injury led to unexpected lineups on both sides with freshman Zeb Jackson seeing minutes in the first half for the Wolverines, as well as Jack Hoiberg playing five first-half minutes for the Spartans.
“We talked about playing Jack Hoiberg to get somebody to move the ball and for Jack to play six-and-a-half minutes,” Izzo said, “including those couple of minutes at the end of the half where we needed someone to defend and move the ball.”
MSU is the only team in the country with three wins against AP top-5 teams this season. No other team has more than one. The Spartans have come back from the brink of death and are looking at an extremely likely 23rd-straight NCAA tournament berth, no matter the results in the Big Ten Tournament next week in Indianapolis.
Izzo summed up the stretch quite well after the game: “It’s been a hell of a 16 days.”
Follow Zach Surdenik on Twitter at @ZachSurdenik.