EAST LANSING — In their most recent meeting, on Feb. 7 of last year, Michigan humiliated Michigan State by 29 points. It marked the worst loss to the Wolverines during Tom Izzo’s tenure at MSU.
In their past two games, the Spartans — then No. 1 — lost by 16 points at Ohio State and escaped in overtime against lowly Rutgers at home. Probably not the sequence Michigan wanted as it traveled to the Breslin Center on Saturday.
Michigan's Mortiz Wagner, right, drives against Michigan State's Gavin Schilling.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge
But this bunch of Wolverines didn’t care. They ventured into enemy territory and sauntered out with an 82-72 win, a signature victory in an evolving season, and the first double-digit win at Michigan State since 1997.
“They were terrific in so many areas,” said Michigan coach John Beilein, who won in the Breslin Center for the third time and improved to 8-11 against the Spartans. “There are a lot of ways to win a game, and we found it.”
Michigan scored 26 points off 18 turnovers and never allowed the fourth-ranked Spartans (16-3, 4-2 Big Ten), arguably the most talented team in the country, to find any rhythm offensively. Jaren Jackson Jr. had 19 points, but 10 came at the free throw line, and Miles Bridges scored 19 points on 13 shots. The rest of the Spartans were just 10 of 25 from the field.
Nick Ward was limited to four points, and Michigan State led for less than nine minutes.
“It’s going to be tough for me to live this down,” Bridges said. “They just wanted it more than we did. They played harder and played tougher.”
Moritz Wagner, the spirited junior from Germany, looked like the firebrand who spurned the NBA last summer to return for another year at Michigan. The player who had a leading role in the NCAA tournament made a rousing return after a humdrum season thus far, finishing with a career-high 27 points, four rebounds, two blocks, and a steal.
Wagner was 8 of 13 from the field and 3 of 4 from 3-point range. And he did it all on a bum ankle, a previous injury that was aggravated Thursday in practice that nearly kept him out of the game. Beilein gave an assist to Alex Wong, the team’s associate athletic trainer.
“Wagner played very well. He gave us some problems,” Izzo said. “He made all his shots. He hasn’t been doing that. Give him credit; he was the difference in the game.”
It was evident before the opening tip how important this game was to Wagner. His hometown might be separated by 4,243 miles, and an ocean away, but he’s intimately aware of the significance of this game inside the Michigan state border.
“This game means so much to the Michigan family,” Wagner said. “Obviously, with me being from Germany, it’s a little different. But for these people, you just want to play your heart out. We did that today. We were very determined.”
Wagner, who’s become the most hated man in maize in East Lansing, jawed with students in the Izzone. Throughout the game, he put his index finger to his lips to hush the crowd and stretched his jersey out for the partisan crowd to read: the letters M-I-C-H-I-G-A-N.
“It probably was the difference in his play,” said Beilein, noting that Wagner relishes being the villain. “That’s the perfect stuff for him. He’s the greatest kid in the world. If the Michigan State people knew him, they’d agree. He’s a delight to coach.”
Izzo compared Wagner to former Spartan Scott Skiles, who was known for his brashness.
“He earned it,” said Izzo, when asked about Wagner’s taunts. “He talked it, he walked it, he played it.”
Michigan (15-4, 4-2 Big Ten) only shot 42 percent from the field and made just 6 of 15 3-point attempts. But superb defense made up for any deficiencies on offense. Along with 18 turnovers, Michigan State only had eight offensive rebounds, three 3s, and seven points off turnovers. The Wolverines had seven turnovers, their second fewest of the season.
Zavier Simpson had 16 points, four rebounds, five assists, and two steals; Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman had 14 points, three assists, and two steals; and Charles Matthews scored 10 points.
Michigan made its first 19 free throws and finished 28 of 35. All from a team that was shooting 64.7 percent from the line entering the game.
Midway through the second half, Michigan State scored six straight points to take a 55-54 lead. The arena came alive after being dormant much of the day, and it felt like a green wave was coming. But Michigan ended the game on a 28-17 run, starting with a 3 by Wagner. Thirteen of UM's points came at the free-throw line.
The Wolverines have won eight of their past nine games, with the only blemish coming against No. 5 Purdue in a one-point, controversial ending Tuesday night.
“There’s something about their grit,” Beilein said. “They’ve got some of the ‘it’ you need.”
If the Spartans want revenge, they might have to wait a while. These two teams aren’t scheduled to play again this season.
“We really have to do a little soul searching,” Izzo said.
Guidelines: Please keep your comments smart and civil. Don't attack other readers personally, and keep your language decent. Comments that violate these standards, or our privacy statement or visitor's agreement, are subject to being removed and commenters are subject to being banned. To post comments, you must be a registered user on toledoblade.com. To find out more, please visit the FAQ.