EAST LANSING, Mich. — It was a once-in-a-century showdown, with a result almost as rare.
In the first-ever game between two Big Ten teams with perfect conference records this deep into the season, the Michigan basketball team upset third-ranked Michigan State 80-75 to storm into uncharted territory Saturday night at a rafter-rattling Breslin Center.
A year after the wolverines left the court here to 'Little Sister' chants, this time the end brought quiet — broken only by the joyous visitors pogoing about the floor.
No. 21 UM rallied late past the undermanned Spartans to not only swipe early control of the Big Ten race but vanquish a third straight top-10 opponent for the first time in program history.
"You know if you want to contend for a conference championship, you better have some success against Michigan State," Michigan coach John Beilein said. "This is one step in that direction. Our kids are excited. That incredible atmosphere here makes it even sweeter."
Down two points with 4:01 left, Michigan (15-4, 7-0 Big Ten) answered with a deciding 10-0 run. Nik Stauskas hit a game-tying 3-pointer before freshman point guard Derrick Walton, Jr., followed with back-to-back silencers — the biggest plays in the biggest game of his uneven first year. Walton drove for a traditional three-point play, then hit a pair of free throws to push the Wolverines ahead 68-60 with 1:58 remaining.
Walton, who returned to the starting lineup after being limited by flu symptoms last week, and Stauskas each finished with 19 points. Gary Harris scored a game-high 27 points to lead the Spartans.
For Michigan, it was the latest twisting chapter in a season not even the Wolverines’ most glass-half-full supporters could have foreseen.
Yes, the win came with a caveat. The Spartans (18-2, 7-1) were without their two top interior players — leading rebounder Branden Dawson was out with a self-inflicted broken hand suffered in a film-session mishap Thursday and senior star Adreian Payne was sidelined with a sprained foot. Their absence was writ large on the box score, with a Wolverines team that was shoved around during their 75-52 loss in East Lansing last year outrebounding MSU 34-30.
Yet at this point, it is unclear what will stop the Wolverines. They have now won nine straight games and are off to their best conference start since 1977.
"The better team won," said MSU coach Tom Izzo, who called the loss "crushing."
In the first game between two Big Ten teams with conference records of at least 6-0, the stakes were clear.
Despite conditions fit for neither student nor scalper, both braved the teeth-chattering cold in force. Sign-wielding undergrads poured into the Breslin Center by the thousands for ESPN’s College GameDay taping in the morning then snaked around the arena three hours before tip. Nosebleed seats started in the six figures on resale sites.
Michigan hoped to use the stage as the latest rung of its recent climb. A team bound for nowhere of consequence after preseason All-American forward Mitch McGary underwent potential season-ending back surgery headed north Saturday off of wins at then-No. 3 Wisconsin and home against 10th-ranked Iowa.
Before Saturday, Michigan had played three straight top-10 teams just once — in December, 1963. Beat all three? Heck, the Wolverines would have gladly taken one. Not since Iowa in 1987 had a team beaten three top-10 teams in succession during the regular season.
Yet there was Michigan, playing with confidence from the start.
Michigan quieted the crowd early, making its first four shots to burst ahead 10-2. But the Spartans rallied with a 19-6 run and kept the lead and did not trail again until late in the second half.
It was then that Michigan answered, and continued on with its sights on prizes that are growing by the day.
"I don't meant to be the killjoy here," Beilein said. "Let's enjoy this. But you know on Monday, we'll make them forget about all this."