EAST LANSING, Mich.—Walking onto the floor of the Breslin Center Saturday night, Michigan sophomore Nik Stauskas looked ready.
Ready for the noise, ready for the intensity, ready for an emotional Michigan State team eager to prove they’d still be able to defend their home floor without starting forwards Branden Dawson and Adreian Payne.
But Stauskas and Michigan had something to prove as well. In the final leg of a three game stretch against three top-10 opponents, the Wolverines wanted to show they belong in the Big Ten title race.
And in the early going, Stauskas quieted it all, scoring eight quick points, each time throwing his fist and looking intently at the Wolverines’ bench.
“I try not to read but I remember reading just a week ago, people saying, and we were 4-0 at that point, we had this stretch and they said ‘oh they’re going to fall off the map, they’re about to lose some games,” Stauskas said after Michigan’s 80-75 win at Michigan State.
“That just shows the resiliency of this team that we’re never going to quit and we’ll always keep fighting.”
Matched up with Michigan State sophomore Gary Harris nearly every time on the offensive end, opportunities were hard to come by, at times impossible with Harris playing terrific denial defense, finishing the night with three steals.
Still, Stauskas was able to come up with 19-points on 7-of-12 shooting to go with four assists in 38 minutes.
“Gary Harris is such a great defender and to get Nik involved with Gary on him is tough to do,” Michigan coach John Beilein said afterward. “He was limited to even touching the ball.
“Once we got used to that, then we said we’ve got to attack in different ways and Nik can score off some residual things or we’ve got to get him open better.”
Harris lead the way for Michigan State offensively as well, pouring in 27-points on 9-of-15 field goal attempts.
Taking advantage of some extra touches was sophomore Caris LeVert and true freshman point guard Derrick Walton, returning to the starting lineup after playing just three minutes in Wednesday’s win over Iowa.
LeVert, in 39 minutes of play, scored 17 points to go with a huge eight rebounds to help Michigan win the rebounding battle 34-30.
For Walton, the match-up with senior Keith Appling on the other side didn’t prove too big a task. Walton finished the night tying Stauskas for a team high 19-points, collecting five rebounds and dishing out four assists with just one turnover.
With Michigan up 63-60 late in the second half, Walton pushed the ball right at Travis Trice in transition, drawing contact and getting the bounce for a crucial three-point play to stretch the Wolverines’ lead to six.
Walton hit 9 of his 10 free throw attempts, including 8-of-9 in the second half to help seal the win for Michigan. The Wolverines shot 25-for-30 from the stripe.
“One of the reasons I know Derrick embraced going to Michigan is because of some of the tremendous games he’s going to be able to play in in the Big Ten,” Beilein said. “And it doesn’t get, you know, this is a great environment, like all the environments are.
“And he hasn’t always knocked them down at the end. He’s had a couple games where he made the end of the game a little bit nervous for us but tonight, all of our guys down the stretch, that was big for us to finish that way.”
Michigan improves to 7-0 in Big Ten play with the win, with a few days off before Purdue heads to Crisler Center Thursday night.
Now winners of nine straight following the news of Mitch McGary’s surgery, Michigan believes they can win the conference, and according to Stauskas, that’s been the mentality from the start of the season.
“We’ve always felt like that,” he said. “And like you said the conference is getting better. The more wins we get like this the better, the more it helps us and the more confidence we’re going to have.”