Michigan entrenched itself atop the Big Ten with an 80-75 victory over instate rival and No. 3-ranked Michigan State Saturday night in the Breslin Center, its third straight win over a Top-10 opponent this past week. The No. 21 Wolverines move to 15-4 (7-0) on the season, while the Spartans fall to 18-2 (7-1).
This was the scene as the Wolverines players entered the locker room at the end of the game, per Michigan's Vine account:
Although his team is riding high after those three straight wins over Top-10 opponents, John Beilein knows that games in January aren't as important as those in March, per Rod Beard of The Detroit News:
Beilein on beating three top-10 teams: "The rankings right now are the ranking. You don't know who's going to be there in March."— Rod Beard (@detnewsRodBeard) January 26, 2014
It wasn't an instant classic by any means, but this game exemplifies why people love Big Ten basketball. It was a physical, back-and-forth affair. As Chantel Jennings of ESPN.com said, don't ever change, Big Ten:
Hey Big Ten basketball, never change.— Chantel Jennings (@ChantelJennings) January 26, 2014
Coming into the game, head coach Tom Izzo's men were at a major disadvantage. Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson were both out with injury, meaning the Spartans would be without their second leading scorer (Payne) and leading rebounder (Dawson). It also meant that somebody or somebodies would have to step up and shoulder more of the load.
Gary Harris did his best to lift the Spartans to the victory, leading MSU in scoring with 27 points on 9-of-15 shooting.
However, he got little support from his teammates. Point guard Keith Appling struggled to get it going, scoring 10 points on just 3-of-11 shooting from the floor. He added 10 assists to finish with the double-double, but more was needed of him in order for Michigan State to walk out with the victory.
Appling took the loss especially hard, telling the Associated Press (via ESPN.com), "I feel like I lost a close family member, that's how bad it hurts."
Three-point shooting ended up playing a major role in the outcome.
Michigan shot 11-of-19 from behind the arc as a team, with Nik Stauskas leading the way for the Wolverines. Stauskas was a scorching 5-of-6 from three-point range and finished with 19 points.
Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton Jr. also had big games, with LeVert scoring 17 and grabbing eight boards, while Walton had 19 points and four assists.
Michigan started the first half strongly. The Wolverines looked like they might run away with it after jumping out to a 10-2 lead three minutes in.
But they would cool off from the field, per ESPN Stats and Info:
Michigan: opened game 4-4 from field, 2-7 since— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 26, 2014
Michigan State took the lead with 10:58 to go in the first half after a three-pointer by Harris. For most of the game, it looked like the Spartans would hold on.
But as the second half dragged on, slowly but surely, the Wolverines began regaining control. The offense simply dried up for the Spartans. Harris wasn't able to carry the team all by himself.
The turning point was a three-pointer by Stauskas to give Michigan a 63-60 lead with 3:12 to play. That was the dagger, as Michigan State had been keeping the Wolverines at bay for the most part, but that shot broke the dam.
The Wolverines built the lead to as much as eight points after a pair of LeVert free throws with 1:29 left in the game, and were able to prevent the Spartans from mounting a comeback by knocking down a bevy of free throws to close it out.
Key Player Grades
Gary Harris, Michigan State: A-
Gary Harris did everything he could to try and push Michigan State through to victory. He figuratively put the Spartans on his back in the absence of Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson, and that was nearly enough.
Unfortunately for him, there was little support to be had.
But you can't fault Harris for this loss, and if anything, the way he stepped up is encouraging for Tom Izzo when looking at the team's chances in March, when everybody should be healthy.
Nik Stauskas, Michigan: A
Nik Stauskas was the bellwether for Michigan. There was a period toward the end of the end of the first half where Stauskas wasn't scoring, and not coincidentally, Michigan surrendered the lead.
Then, as Stauskas found his shooting stroke in the second half, the Wolverines regained their footing and eventually took control of the game.
Derrick Walton Jr., Michigan: A-
Derrick Walton Jr. looked like an experienced veteran out there, rather than a freshman. He remained composed throughout the game, and his performance helped to take some of the pressure off Stauskas.
Getting 19 points out of Walton was an added bonus for head coach John Beilein, but it's the kind of performance an underdog needs if it is trying to beat a team as good as Michigan State on the road.
Michigan State doesn't have time to sit back and reflect on this loss. The Spartans hit the road to take on the No. 10 Iowa Hawkeyes next Tuesday.
The Wolverines get a bit of a break after what was a brutal three-game stretch. They welcome the Purdue Boilermakers next Thursday.