ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Hosting their in-state rival with the driver’s seat to a Big Ten championship up for grabs, No. 20 Michigan (19-7, 11-3) protected home court and outlasted No. 13 Michigan State (22-6, 11-4) with a 79-70 win Sunday afternoon.
“It’s a great win because of who we just beat,” Michigan coach John Beilein said afterward. “Michigan State has been such a tremendous program for so long; I mean decades.
“They have a great coach, they’ve got great players and for us to be able to beat them, and we’re both at the top of the Big Ten conference, for us to be able to beat them is just a terrific accomplishment.”
Much like in the Wolverines first match-up with the Spartans back on Feb. 6, Tom Izzo’s bunch raced out to a double digit lead in the first half (22-11) as Michigan, led by 14 first half points from sophomore Caris LeVert, battled and made a run to go into the break down just 36-34.
“We were trying to score baskets any way that we could,” Beilein said. “They were in some gaps, they have a great defensive plan and they have the length and the quickness to do that.
“But we had to change our scheme a little bit at halftime to do some things and then Nik had to be more involved.
“But Caris, as you can see, his ability to get in the paint, they can’t guard everybody so if you put him and Nik on the same side, they’re not going to leave Nik, it got him to the rim.”
LeVert finished his day with 23 points on 7-of-15 shooting from the field along with zero turnovers.
In the second half, it was Nik Stauskas’ turn to take over the game and he did just that. Posting 21 of his 25 points in the final 20 minutes, Stauskas efficiently and effectively knocked down 3-of-5 five three-point attempts to finish 9-of-12 from the field, most of his shots coming with a defender in his face.
Up 59-52 with just under nine minutes to go, Michigan made the switch to the 1-3-1 zone out of a timeout, stopping Michigan State on two straight possessions and converting those into a LeVert triple followed by a LeVert dunk to balloon the Wolverines’ lead to 12.
“Credit my assistants big time on that one because it’s hard to get me to go zone sometimes,” Beilein said. “We do practice it and we’re improving in it but I’ve gone from using it so much to hating giving up a three ball. But they’re so good at running what they do that we just wanted to change.
“Especially, Tom’s great at coming out of a timeout and running a play that they either get fouled or get an open shot so we thought maybe some of those times we’d go zone coming out of a timeout, now he’s got two plays to talk about maybe they won’t be so damn good in either one of them, but usually they are.”
From there, Michigan’s energy proved too much down the stretch for a Michigan State team beat up, banged up and with the look of physical exhaustion getting up and down the floor.
“They played a late Thursday night game at Purdue, I’m sure they got back late,” Beilein said. “Afternoon game, that can happen to teams on two days rest and frankly we were concerned about having this week either we got out of shape or drove them too hard.
“But, I didn’t notice at the end, with six or seven minutes to go, and maybe it’s just the nature of the game, I thought our guys seemed to have a lot of bounce in their step.”
Afterward, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo took some of the blame for substitution patterns but noted his Spartans just aren’t healthy and aren’t going to be.
“We looked tired,” Izzo said. “I was not proud of our effort. I think I did a poor job playing Payne too many minutes in a row and he was dead tired and that’s when a couple turnovers happened.”
Izzo adding on the up and down season, “It’s been a strange year. It doesn’t get any stranger than to go to your rival and shoot 54-percent, 40 from three, and lose. And that’s because I think we’ve become too much of an offensive team and not as good a defensive team and eventually that catches up to you.”
The Spartans were led by 21 points out of Gary Harris who struggled to knock down open shots from the outside, finishing 4-of-13 from three-point range. Adreian Payne scored 12 and pulled in 11 rebounds in 36 minutes while Denzel Valentine scored 13, 11 of which came in the first half.
Now sitting atop the Big Ten conference and holding the tiebreaker over Michigan State, Michigan is in full control of their own destiny with four games in 10 days coming up to finish the regular season.
“We’ve got four games to play,” Beilein said. “What it does do is put us in position to be in position.
“That’s all it does.”