EAST LANSING — Minutes prior to Michigan State’s Big Ten matchup against Nebraska, it was announced in the Jack Breslin Student Events Center that the Michigan Wolverines — the Spartans’ in-state foes, and Big Ten co-leader — fell at home to Wisconsin. Nearly all 14,797 people in attendance roared in excitement. MSU had a chance to take sole possession of the Big Ten.
But as soon as the ball was thrown in the air, the Cornhuskers (14-10, 6-6) didn’t just punch the No. 9 Spartans (21-5, 10-3) straight in the mouth, they stomped them when they were down.
Nebraska started the game on 13-4 run — led by an array of jump shots from Walter Pitchford and Terran Petteway — which was pivotal to their 60-51 victory over Michigan State.
“I’m disappointed,” Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said. “I talked to my team at our pre-game meal today about the Super Bowl, about how if you come out and get punched in the mouth early, you have to be ready to play all the time. We’re trying to make a big deal about the first four or five possessions both offensively and defensively. I made that point and then sat there and watched the team shrivel up with a couple of bad plays. It changed the dynamics of the game.
“I’m not blaming one guy or another guy, but we let Pitchford pop out and just knock a three down. I can’t tell you how much it was on the scouting report. One of my smartest guys, the same guy missed a layup on the other end and turned the ball over. I think we missed four layups that were dead layups. That one was the deadest of layups and that all happened in the first two minutes.”
With 15:26 remaining in the first half, the Spartans still found themselves down 13-4. After a media timeout, Izzo put in redshirt freshman Kenny Kaminski and senior point guard Keith Appling — who missed missed the previous three games with a wrist injury.
Michigan State went on a 5-0 run with Appling in the ball game, and after he went out with about 11 minutes remaining, the Spartans continued to crawl back. Their 5-0 run turned into an 11-0 run, and a Gary Harris mid-range jumper gave MSU a 15-13 lead with 9:34 left to play — its first of the game.
And just when it seemed like the Spartans had finally arrived, they reverted back to what put them in a hole in the first place: sloppy offense and bad perimeter defense. Mix that with foul trouble, and that’s a recipe for an upset.
Junior point guard Travis Trice and senior big man Adreian Payne both picked up their second fouls with about eight minutes left to play in the half, and while the Spartans still fought back, it hindered their ability to break the game open.
“That hurt us a lot,” Payne said about the early fouls. “I can’t get in foul trouble like that – that early. I’m a big part of the team. I was frustrated that I was out, and I knew that being out would hurt the team a lot. I felt like I let them down. I think that had a big effect on the team early. I was out of the game, and they took advantage of it.”
Michigan State committed five of its seven first-half turnovers in the final six minutes. And despite the Spartans slowing down the Cornhuskers’ offense that consisted of 3-point bombs in the early moments of the game, Pitchford found his stroke, again, and hit nine of his 12 points — three 3-pointers — down the final stretch of the first half to help propel Nebraska to a 32-25 halftime lead.
“They did everything we scouted,” said Michigan State sophomore Gary Harris, who had 18 points on 5-for-15 shooting (1 for 7 from 3-point land). “They did the stuff you can’t scout. They played with energy, they played with toughness. They were relentless all night, and once they got going early it’s kind of hard to stop a team when they have confidence early in the game.”
Michigan State came out in the second half similarly to how they started in the first half. The Spartans didn’t score their first basket until a little over three minutes into the second half, and the Cornhuskers scored on their first two possessions.
MSU continued to battle back, but couldn’t quite close the gap. However, with 5:48 remaining, the Spartans’ Denzel Valentine hit two of his four points to cut the Cornhuskers’ lead to four. Nebraska’s Terran Petteway retaliated with a 3-point bucket to extend the lead to seven, but three Harris free throws — coming from a Petteway foul on a 3-point attempt — and an Adreian Payne layup cut the game to 51-49 in favor of Nebraska.
The momentum was in the Spartans’ favor, finally. However, with 3:27 remaining, Izzo called a timeout that seemed to have benefit Nebraska more than MSU.
Michigan State came out of the timeout with an air-ball 3-point attempt by Kaminski — who had nine points on 3-of-6 shooting — and Nebraska’s Petteway came right back with a 3-point make to give the Cornhuskers a 54-49 lead with 2:32 left.
“I had four left and I had to talk to them about a couple of things,” Izzo said about his decision to call a timeout. “Number one – it’s been hard. Adreian (Payne) missed one day of practice this week and we are just playing different guys. We were playing Denzel (Valentine) at the four there for a minute. I wanted to make sure we got what we wanted. Number two – I wanted to talk about that if we were going to foul, we were going to foul intentionally, because they didn’t call any fouls on us the second half.
“They wore their whistle out on us in the first half. They didn’t have any left in the second half, so I think we only had two team fouls. That was the reason, but I don’t regret doing it. I don’t mind being questioned about it either.”
Two free throws by Harris cut Nebraska’s lead down to three, but Petteway scored five straight — finished with a game-high 23 points — to close out the Spartans.
While the Cornhuskers showed their maturity as a team by being able to finish the Spartans, it was the first couple of possessions of the game that really set the tone.
“With any shooter, if they see their first couple of shots fall they’re going to feel good about themselves, and pretty much have a big night,” said Appling, who had two points and three rebounds in his return. “We weren’t able to prevent that from happening because we gave a shooter an open look the first possession of the game, and that’s pretty much what got them going. And from there, they took off.”
With Michigan’s loss to Wisconsin, the Spartans are still in a first-place tie in the Big Ten. And even though this is a game that could later haunt Michigan State as the Big Ten season comes to an end in the next couple of weeks, they realize they are in a very fortunate position — a position that seems almost absurd based on the health issues that they have endured.
“Right now, we’re still tied for first in the Big Ten,” Appling said. “Obviously, we could have put ourselves in a better situation had we won today. But we just go to move forward and try to watch the film and learn from some of our mistakes.”