Indiana and Michigan State came into Tuesday night each sorely missing senior leaders. In the end, it was sophomore Gary Harris who extended the Spartans' Big Ten winning streak to seven games.
Harris scored 24 points, including 20 in the second half, as No. 3 Michigan State came back from one of its worst offensive halves of the year to grab a 71-66 victory over the Hoosiers in East Lansing.
The Spartans (18-1, 7-0 Big Ten) have not lost since a Dec. 4 defeat to North Carolina, but the notoriously difficult to please Tom Izzo looked as exasperated as he ever has during the first half.
Michigan State was again without forward Adreian Payne and with a limited Keith Appling struggling with a back injury, the lack of leadership showed. Aggression was almost nonexistent on both ends of the floor as the Spartans allowed Hoosiers forward Noah Vonleh to dominate down low and got almost nothing from its stable of guards.
The result was a 28-27 halftime deficit and a coach seemingly on the precipice of losing his voice.
Harris gave Izzo plenty of reasons to smile in the second half—even if the stress level at the Jack Breslin Student Events Center never quite dissipated. Taking over the offensive reins early, Harris scored six of the Spartans' first 12 points, getting into a rhythm after a four-point first half.
With Harris in a rhythm and the home crowd feeding off his energy, you could almost excuse Indiana, playing without veteran leader Will Sheehey, if they caved under the pressure. This is the same Indiana team that had already dropped a contest with the Spartans in Bloomington by 17 points. But rather than fold under the pressure, the Hoosiers thrived.
Where Harris was a one-man show at times for the Spartans, Indiana held a consistent lead throughout the first 10 minutes of the second half thanks to a team-wide effort.
Michigan State worked to deny Vonleh, who finished with 13 points and 13 rebounds, but the off-the-dribble effectiveness of Yogi Ferrell on Appling opened up the offense. Ferrell scored a team-high 19 points to go along with three assists, while forwards Troy Williams and Jeremy Hollowell took advantage of openings set up by their point guard. A Williams layup in transition gave Indiana a 46-41 lead with 11:51 remaining, leaving a despondent Izzo to call a timeout.
It's unclear what Izzo said in that huddle. But whatever words came out of his mouth sparked a Spartans run that allowed them to avoid an upset.
As the Indiana offense stagnated amid a sea of opportunity, the Spartans went on a 21-6 run, got out to a double-digit lead and withstood desperate heroics from Ferrell to hold on. The Indiana guard scored 12 of 14 points for his team down the stretch, the most stress-inducing being a three-pointer with 35 seconds remaining to draw the Hoosiers within four at 66-62.
But four straight free throws from Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine closed out any hope of a comeback, and give Izzo a victory over close friend and former assistant Tom Crean.
The game was Michigan State's 18th win in its last 19 games at home against Indiana. The Spartans' victory allows them to stick with in-state rival Michigan as the only two unbeaten teams in the Big Ten. That streak will end for one of those two teams over the weekend, when the Wolverines take a trip to East Lansing on Saturday.
The Hoosiers (12-7, 2-4 Big Ten) have now lost two straight since their victory over then-No. 3 Wisconsin. Instead, they've followed with an embarrassing home loss to Northwestern and at least something of a moral victory on Tuesday. Still, one year after earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, Crean has his work cut out if he even wants a March Madness bid this season.
Games like this prove the Hoosiers have the talent to compete.
|F Austin Etherington||C-|
|F Noah Vonleh||B+|
|F Troy Williams||C+|
|G Stanford Robinson||C-|
|G Yogi Ferrell||C|
|F Hanner Mosquera-Perea||C|
|F Jeremy Hollowell||B-|
|F Devin Davis||C|
|G Evan Gordon||C|
|F Jeff Howard||C|
|F Matt Costello||C-|
|G Gary Harris||A|
|G Denzel Valentine||C|
|G Keith Appling||C-|
|G Branden Dawson||B-|
|F Alex Gauna||C|
|F Kenny Kaminski||C|
|F Gavin Schilling||C|
|G Travis Trice||B|
|G Alvin Ellis III||C|
Players of the Game: Noah Vonleh (F, Indiana), Gary Harris (G, Michigan State)
Between lauding columns about Joel Embiid, Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Julius Randle, perhaps someone should take the time to notice that Vonleh is having a stellar freshman season of his own. The Indiana forward came into Tuesday averaging 12.4 points and 9.2 rebounds and came to East Lansing on a mission to exceed both stats.
Vonleh almost single-handedly kept the Hoosiers offense afloat in the first half, scoring nine of their 28 points and grabbing six boards. Active down low against a Spartans defense obviously missing Payne, Vonleh was able to use his size and unique skill set to get himself going. And, more importantly, Vonleh helped force the Spartans deep down their bench due to foul trouble.
Crean went out and made a concerted effort to get Vonleh going in the second half as well, though he wasn't necessarily as vital. Ferrell penetrated well and found open teammates, emerging as a far more integral figure in the second half. But Vonleh's solid play in both halves gets him the nod here.
On the other side, Michigan State got a stellar performance from its own potential lottery pick. With Payne out and Appling struggling his way through a back injury all night, Harris atoned for a nondescript first half with stellar offensive play in the final 20 minutes. He hit shots from outside and got to the rim, eventually forcing Indiana to guard him up close—leading to a couple hand-check fouls that got the Spartans into the bonus.
Harris has been better in some areas as a sophomore, specifically with his aggressiveness. And while there are still some warts—ones that could hurt his draft stock—only a select few were apparent on Tuesday.
Michigan State's stand of four home games in its next five will continue Saturday, but the opponent won't get any easier. The Spartans host No. 21 Michigan for their first of the home-and-home matchup. Indiana should have an easier time in its second game of the week, a home tilt against scuffling Illinois on Sunday.
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