INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- A healthy Michigan State team proved they’re the force many predicted they’d be in the pre-season as they out toughed Michigan in the Big Ten tournament final, 69-55 the final Sunday afternoon.
Winning both meetings against Michigan State during the regular season in the Big Ten, the Wolverines struggled to handle Spartans’ forwards Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson on both ends of the floor.
Dawson and Payne were both out in the first meeting in East Lansing, Payne returning for the Spartans’ loss in Ann Arbor.
“We got beat today by a really good team,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “They were exceptional in everything, in everything that they did. Their defense was really good, their steals in the first half, and their offensive rebounding, just took possessions from us.
“All that being said, a couple breaks go our way, we would have liked it to be three or four at half. Unfortunately it wasn't.”
Michigan State opened the second half with a quick six points ballooning the Spartans lead to 44-29, ultimately too much to overcome as shots clanged off the rim down the stretch, Michigan unable to get enough stops to battle back.
“The key part of the game, I think, was the second half,” Beilein said. “We came out, I thought we had a couple really good looks, and then we -- and didn't convert, and they did. And all of a sudden it's 15, and now you're fighting back the whole way.
“Huge congratulations to Michigan State. They deserve it. They were better than us today, and we move forward and look forward to the NCAAs.”
A foul called on Morgan just 1:15 into the game changed the course of Michigan’s approach, opening the floodgates for several looks inside as Michigan State looked to exploit their size advantage.
Morgan picked up two fouls in the first half, his backup Jon Horford called for three leaving redshirt sophomore Max Bielfeldt in there to battle and do his best against a very experienced and athletic Spartans’ frontcourt.
“It seemed like all our big guys were kind of in foul trouble,” Morgan said. “And they definitely exposed that, not necessarily just imposed on us but kind of on the glass, and kind of a certain physicality down there.
“So that was tough for us to kind of work through and try to stay in the game through that.”
The Spartans early second half barrage was spurred by a healthy Dawson that looked fresh in the open floor, battling with former AAU teammate Glenn Robinson III on both ends of the floor.
Dawson, everyone’s x-factor heading into this one, finished his day with 15-points on 7-of-8 shooting from the field.
“I mean, I've played against Branden many times,” Robinson III said. “He's a great player, especially for them to have him back, he did a lot for their team. We knew his big thing was offensive rebounding, and we had to keep him off the glass.
“We needed to do a better job at that. But he really gave them a spark on offense and defense, I thought.”
Michigan State outrebounded Michigan 38-28, taking advantage of 14 offensive rebounds and nine turnovers by the Wolverines.
Michigan shot just 31.5-percent from the field in the game including a poor and uncharacteristic 6-of-23 from three-point land as the Wolverines struggled to get by the pressure defense from Michigan State.
“Well, first of all, they're a very long team,” Beilein said. “They're very experienced. It takes -- when we have breakdowns; it's usually youth breakdowns defensively. You didn't see many freshmen out there today, and really just a couple sophomores.
“They really do a great job of protecting the paint. You're not getting in there. And if you get in there, you've got to finish through physical contact, and they were better than us today.”
Michigan’s Nik Stauskas scored 13 first half points, limited to just four in the second half on 4-of-14 shooting as Michigan State’s pressure forced difficult shots.
While Michigan State is now healthy and surging none of us will truly know what a 100-percent Michigan and 100-percent Michigan State battle would’ve looked like this season, the Wolverines still without pre-season All-America center Mitch McGary.
Either way, the Spartans appear to be clicking at the right time.
“Two things are happening: Number one, they're getting healthy, right, and number two, you get those guys back and they're healthy, that doesn't mean you're immediately better the next day,” Beilein said. “That means it takes time to get timing down, to get guys ready. There's a lot of work that goes into this thing.
“So those things, I think, have been happening over the last two or three weeks where they've had ups and downs as they got healthy. But their timing in this tournament, you can see by the gravity of their wins. Wisconsin is a pretty good team, and they did the same thing to Wisconsin they did to us.”
Michigan State now heads off to Spokane, Wash. as the No. 4 seed in the East Region to take on the 13 seeded Delaware Thursday.
Meanwhile Michigan landed the No. 2 seed in the Midwest, staying close and headed to Milwaukee to take on No. 15 seed Wofford (20-12).