EAST LANSING, Mich. — Wolverines sophomore Jordan Poole stated Friday that No. 7 Michigan’s game against No. 9 Michigan State with a share of the Big Ten title on the line was like something out of a movie. The Wolverines opened the game with an explosive set piece akin to something you might see from Michael Bay as the Wolverines blitzed the Spartans early thanks to stellar shooting performances from Poole and freshman Ignas Brazdeikis. The Wolverines silenced the Breslin Center out of the gates. In a sequel to the team’s first game against MSU on February 24, the Wolverines saw their lead slip away in the second half as the Spartans completed a regular season sweep of the Wolverines. Michigan (26-5, 15-5 Big Ten) fell to rival Michigan State (25-6, 16-4 B1G) finishing the regular season in third place.
“Tough loss, move on to the Big Ten Championship,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “If we learn as much as we did last time from when we played them… I don’t know if we win at Maryland if we didn’t lose to Michigan State at home. We learned so much from that game about what it takes to win games, If we don’t win at Maryland this would’ve been a moot point, not for a championship. There’s good and bad to it. We will take the lessons we learned from this game, apply it to the Big Ten Tournament, see if we can win that again. We have a good group of young men who are really hurting right now and we are with them all the way.”
Two turnovers in the opening two possessions put Michigan State in an early hole. Zavier Simpson (6 points, 3-13 FG) stole the ball after the Spartans won the jump, feeding Jordan Poole (15 points) for a transition layup. Another Simpson steal on the next trip down the floor led to an Ignas Brazdeikis (20 points) three and a money sign gesture from Brazdeikis for the Spartan fans. As Michigan’s early offensive onslaught continued, John Beilein’s offense was operating at an efficient pace, and it the Wolverines cruised to a 17-7 lead in the game’s opening minutes. As Brazdeikis took a seat with 11:17 until halftime, he took a moment to blow a kiss to the Spartan student section, a possible homage to his friend Nik Stauskus.
The final ten minutes of the first half was where the first plot twist occurred. Michigan saw Brazdeikis and Isaiah Livers each collect two fouls, meaning they had to sit for most of the time left of the clock. Michigan ran with the rarely seen lineup of David DeJulius, Eli Brooks Jordan Poole, Brandon Johns, and Jon Teske. This group did have some success with starters out due to either foul trouble or needing rest. Michigan ran its lead to 35-23 with 3:12 remaining until halftime.
“Getting into a game with this atmosphere and this amount of hype around it really build character and confidence,” Brooks said about the extended run he saw.
Michigan State then went on a run without its offensive fulcrum, Cassius Winston (23 points, 7 assists,) who was on the bench with two fouls. The Spartans strung together a 6-0 run to close the gap to just six entering the locker room. Baskets from Thomas Kithier, Kyle Ahrens and Xavier Tillman (17 points, 6 rebounds) energized the Spartans, and the home crowd as Michigan led 35-29 at the break.
“Just tried to continue what we were doing, we played really good defense,” Poole replied when asked about the Wolverines halftime discussion. “They were able to get runs and make shots in the second half and we just didn’t answer.”
“I think what won the game for us was being down only six at halftime,” said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo “cause that easily could’ve been sixteen.”
In the second half, Michigan needed to find the offense it found at Maryland, something that Beilein likened to playing selfless basketball for the greater good of the team and a winning outcome. Brazdeikis went up for two shots and came up empty on both attempts; Jon Teske (8 points, 3 rebounds) was there for two second-chance buckets. The game shifted from high octane and fast paced to a much more demurred chess match, a drama befitting of the stakes with a Big Ten championship on the line.
The pendulum of momentum then swung towards Michigan State.
Led by Cassius Winston, and an aggressive defense, the Spartans went on a 20-2 run in the second half. Michigan’s offense went cold, much as it did against the Spartans in the teams first meeting two weeks before. Michigan saw a 48-40 lead turn into a 59-52 deficit in just six minutes.
“I think we imploded a little bit,” replied Beilein when asked about the Spartans run. “On a couple occasions where they blocked a couple shots during that time and that was huge. Then we missed some shots, even had a couple air balls, that is tough for us.” The coach went on to correct his phrasing later in his press conference. “Implosion is a really bad word. We were not as poised as we needed to be. We needed to be poised at that time and we weren’t.
“I think a couple possessions of miscommunication, I fault myself, I was entangled in one of those,” said Livers of the run. “Just giving them easy shots, easy buckets, they didn’t have the pressure we were supposed to give to them.” Livers added he wouldn’t mind seeing
As the Breslin Center reached a fever pitch with every made basket, Michigan found itself scrambling, trying to string together a few baskets to close the gap. The Wolverines attempts were futile, as a familiar, and in Michigan’s case, haunting, feeling crept in: doubt. That lack of poise Beilein spoke of trickled down as the Wolverines folded as the game wrapped up.
“We got seven minutes left, and we hadn’t scored in seven minutes. It was kind of bad and I feel like at that point a couple of guys started cracking,” Livers said.
Seconds kept ticking off the clock, misses kept piling up, and Spartans continued to collect rebounds and turn them into points. Michigan State finished the game +26 in rebounding margin. Brazdeikis, who provided Michigan’s primary (and only) scoring punch in the game, fouled out with 5:10 left to play, and that was curtains for the Wolverines hopes. Michigan, which led by 12 points late in the first half, finished losing by 12 points, 75-63 in East Lansing.
“Really we just gotta trust our game plan,” said freshman guard David DeJulius. “Second half I think we didn’t trust our gameplan but we just have to know our record is 26-5. We just have to know we had a great season and we have to continue to listen to the coaches and continue to have each other’s back.”
Michigan returns to Ann Arbor Saturday night with the sting of being swept by its arch-rival for the first time since the 2014-15 season. The Wolverines won’t take the floor again until late Friday night as the three seed in the Big Ten Tournament. While there are no more “true” road games for the Wolverines as one-and-done time approaches, they no doubt are left to wonder what could have been if some of their four away Big Ten losses went differently as a chance at a Big Ten regular-season championship evaporated Saturday night in a horror movie Michigan will not want to relive in film session.
“Michigan is never done until the season is over,” said Livers.
With a chance at one banner now gone, Michigan will look to defend its Big Ten Tournament title and win an unprecedented third straight tournament with three wins in three days in Chicago next weekend. This loss may prove to be a teaching moment as Michigan chases a conference tournament championship and a national championship, but for now, the Wolverines will have to deal with the sting of dropping a conference championship to their arch-rival.