Not even a week ago, not many expected much out of Michigan State over the final two weeks of the regular season.
The Spartans were mired near the bottom of the Big Ten standings and weren’t even in the bubble discussion when it came to the NCAA Tournament. Add in the fact they were getting set to play six games in the final 13 days of the season with four of those games coming against top-five teams in the nation, and it would have been hard to find someone who believed there was life left in Michigan State’s season.
Of course, nobody took a poll with anyone in the Spartans’ locker room. It certainly would have painted a different picture, one that would have come closer to describing what has happened the past six days. Michigan State has won three in a row, beginning with a win over Indiana on Saturday followed by back-to-back wins over top-five teams.
The latest was Thursday’s 71-67 victory over No. 4 Ohio State, which came two days after knocking off No. 5 Illinois.
Now, with four games to play, Michigan State (13-9, 7-9 Big Ten) has as much momentum as any team in the conference and can legitimately start thinking about continuing its 22-season NCAA Tournament streak.
It’s a shock to many around college basketball, but not exactly to those who have been around East Lansing for a while.
“We have to continue to be hungry, never be satisfied,” junior Aaron Henry said. “I mean, we’ve all won in that locker room before. I like to say, don’t applaud a fish for swimming. Fish swim all day. Spartans have won before. We have won before, and we have to continue to do that and take it one day at a time.”
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Henry is right. Michigan State has won plenty. In fact, most of the roster was part of last season’s Big Ten championship team while Henry and his classmates have been part of two conference title teams and reached the Final Four as freshmen. So, yeah, they know about winning.
This season, though, the winning has been hard to come by, putting Michigan State in a precarious position where they’ve needed a furious finish to salvage its season.
Just two days after taking it two Illinois, the Spartans needed to rally and put together a remarkable final few minutes to pull off another upset.
Henry, who scored 18 points, hit a huge bucket and made two free throws in the final three minutes as Michigan State erased a three-point deficit and held Ohio State without a bucket for the final 4:46. Malik Hall added two free throws to give Michigan State the lead with 2:32 to play and Joshua Langford nailed a deep jumper with 30 seconds to play as the Spartans strung together enough stops in the final minutes to secure the win as Ohio State missed its last eight shots.
“I’m ecstatic,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “I’m not sure we’ve had many weeks when we’ve beaten and No. 4 and 5-ranked team in the country, so I’m going to enjoy it for 20 more minutes.”
E.J. Liddell scored 18 to lead Ohio State (18-6, 12-6) while Duane Washington Jr. added 17, C.J. Walker scored 12 and Justice Sueing had 10 points.
The Buckeyes have now lost two in a row after coming off Sunday’s loss at home to Michigan.
“Give Michigan State credit,” said Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann, who was ejected with one second to play after a second technical foul. “I thought they played more physical than we did, made few more plays down the stretch.
“We knew we were playing a good team. This team was a top-five in the country at one time. They’ve got talented kids, talented players. Tom’s terrific. We knew what we were getting into here.”
The Spartans got off to another quick start, opening the game by building a quick 11-6 lead. However, the turnovers and fouls started piling up as Ohio State made 10 of its first 14 shots of the game and eventually retook the lead and pushed its advantage to 22-17 on a jumper from Zed Key with 10:23 left in the half.
Michigan State was able to rally, and when Brown hit a jumper from the elbow with 6:30 to play, the game was tied at 27. The Buckeyes started hitting from long range, though, getting a pair of triples from Sueing and Walker as they took a 35-29 lead, its biggest at that point.
The Spartans scored the next four to pull within two, but they failed to score a point for the final 3:06 of the half as the Buckeyes took advantage to take a 38-33 lead into the locker room at halftime as Henry and Langford each sat for large chunks of the half with two fouls each.
“Guys fought tonight,” Henry said. “Me and Josh sat the last eight minutes of the first half but guys really came in and played their hearts out and played together.”
Michigan State chipped away early in the second half and tied the game at 40 after Langford hit a couple of free throws. But the Ohio State scored the next nine points as the Spartans suffered through a miserable stretch of shooting, making only one field goal in the first seven minutes of the half and missing 13 of 14 shots at one point.
A Henry jumper ended the run as the Spartans slowly started to get the offense moving. Brown followed with a jumper before Langford and Julius Marble also scored. Henry then hit a runner to pull Michigan State within 53-50 and cut that margin down to two by splitting a pair of free throws with 7:49 to play.
The Spartans tied it up at 55 and at 57, but the Buckeyes scored four in a row before Joey Hauser’s 3-pointer with 4:25 to play pulled Michigan State within 61-60. Ohio State pushed the lead to 63-60 before Michigan State scored the next six, taking a 66-63 lead with less than a minute to play.
Ohio State pulled within one but Langford buried a deep jumper to push the lead back to three. However, Langford was called for a foul at the other end and Liddell hit two free throws to cut the MSU lead to one, but the Spartans got a key stop and put the game away at the line.
“We’re playing connected,” Henry said. “We’re playing as a team, playing together. Not just offensively but defensively. We’re raising our play, we’re becoming more together and more connected and it’s good to see. It’s just a wonderful thing when the ball is moving, we’re playing defense on one accord, and we just look so together.”
They’ve been together for three straight games now, and the key for the Spartans will be continuing that over the next four games. The next chance is Sunday at Maryland and the Spartans will do their best to be as fresh as they can be.
But for at least a few minutes on Thursday, they celebrated, dousing Izzo in water when he entered the locker room.
It was something that hasn’t been seen at MSU much this season, and the Spartans enjoyed the moment. Still, they know their work is not done.
“We’re not safe in anything yet,” Izzo said. “We haven’t accomplished anything yet. But what we’ve accomplished is we’ve shown we can get up off the mat.”