| Detroit Free Press
EAST LANSING — Michigan State basketball is heading to Indianapolis.
Yes, that much was known before Sunday, with the Big Ten tournament starting Wednesday. But the Spartans all but solidified a long-term stay for the week beyond.
Rocket Watts and Joey Hauser emerged from a season-long slump to combine for 32 points, and MSU rebounded from Thursday’s blowout loss to No. 2 Michigan with a 70-64 upset at Breslin Center.
The victory — the Spartans’ third over a top-5 opponent in the past 13 days — all but secures Tom Izzo’s 23rd consecutive NCAA tournament appearance.
And they did it by upsetting the rival Wolverines,in front of the biggest crowd of the season at Breslin Center, though no official attendance figure was released.
“I’m proud of this team because they did what I asked of them, and that’s go out and make a memory for yourself,” Izzo said. “Because 15 years from now, when they talk about the pandemic, they can say, ‘Yeah, we fought through it and and found a way to get into that tournament.’ And that’s gonna be worth the memory-making moment, I promise you that.”
MSU (15-11, 9-11 Big Ten) will open Big Ten tournament play at 11:30 a.m. Thursday as the 9 seed against 8-seeded Maryland at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. The winner will face the top-seeded Wolverines at 11:30 a.m. Friday.
“I’m going hoooome. I can’t wait for that. My mom and dad were here, too, so I saw them. That was good,” said Aaron Henry, an Indianapolis native who scored 13 of his 18 points in the second half Sunday. “But it was just good to see faces in the stand in green and white. Man, it was just a great day for everybody — everybody from the fans all the way to the people on the court. It was it was a fun day. A good Sunday. A great Sunday.”
Watts’ 21 points were his most since scoring 23 against Detroit on Dec. 4 and just his third double-digit scoring game in MSU’s last 21. The sophomore hit eight of his 16 shots with four rebounds and four assists.
And he did so with his mother, Leshell Robinson, watching from the stands for the first time in his college career. Izzo said Watts, who did not elaborate much on the situation, was in tears after the game. The Detroit native said he spotted his mom in the stands crying when he checked in 4:09 into the first half.
“It felt real good seeing my mom in the stands and me looking her in her eyes when I was on the court and seeing tears coming down her eyes. That means a lot to me,” Watts said. “And just seeing everybody in the stands and cheering and stuff like that.”
The regular-season champion Wolverines (19-3, 14-3) cut it to two points on Hunter Dickinson’s three-point play with 1:13 to play on Joshua Langford’s fourth foul after the MSU senior turned the ball over egregiously at the other end.
But Langford, in what could be his final game at MSU, responded with a 3-pointer with 48.9 seconds to play to answer the shot.
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Gabe Brown grabbed two defensive rebounds and made four free throws in after Langford’s bucket, and Henry sank more two free throws with 11.1 seconds remaining to get the largest crowd of the season chanting “Go Green, Go White” as time expired and players hugged each other in celebration.
“Emotionally, I’m a happy camper,” Izzo said. “Which doesn’t happen very often.”
Chaundee Brown scored 13 points to lead Michigan, while Dickinson had 12 points and seven rebounds. Mike Smith added 11 points and seven assists, and Franz Wagner scored eight of his 10 in the second half, including two 3-pointers in the final 3:21 to help the Wolverines stay close.
The Spartans won five of their final seven games over a 15-day stretch to end the season, including top-five wins over Michigan, Ohio State and Illinois.
The Spartans looked like a much different team than the one that showed blips of consistency before getting blown out 69-50 on Thursday in Ann Arbor.
They attacked the boards early, with Izzo rotating Julius Marble II, Marcus Bingham Jr. and Mady Sissoko on 7-foot-1 Hunter Dickinson. The U-M freshman managed just three points and three rebounds in the first half, also picking up a pair of fouls in his 13 minutes.
MSU’s trio of big men bodied him up and forced Dickinson into uncomfortable shooting angles to lead a defensive effort that held the Wolverines to 10-for-28 shooting, with the guards limiting Michigan to 3-for-10 from behind the 3-point arc.
The hustle plays that were missing Thursday also returned Sunday, with scrappy defense and gang-rebounding that led to a 22-15 MSU edge on the boards through the first half.
But the biggest development was the inspired play by Watts and Hauser off the bench. Izzo has tried to get production from the pair in a season filled with struggles. Watts in particular was vilified by Izzo after failing to dive for a loose ball early in the second half Thursday, which led to a 25-4 U-M knockout run and earned him a seat on the bench for the final 17:01.
This time, the 6-2 guard looked focused upon entering around the 4-minute mark. His driving floater followed a pair of buckets by Hauser in a 7-0 run shortly after both checked in, and both continued to attack the basket throughout the first half.
The duo combined for all of the Spartans’ points in a 13-6 run late in the half, and Henry’s driving layup into Michigan’s zone with 18 seconds left sent MSU into halftime leading, 30-26. Watts (11) and Hauser (nine) had two-thirds of the Spartans’ points, and they also had six rebounds combined.
“I was just real mad at myself — not at the coaches or anybody, just myself — because I know I could have played a lot better and harder at Michigan,” Watts said. “I was just mad at myself, and that just made me work harder.”
That goes for the rest of the Spartans as well. Not even three weeks ago, after back-to-back losses to Iowa and Purdue, Izzo team appeared trending toward missing the NCAAs for the first time since 1995-96, his second season.
Now, they are going back to Indianapolis with the confidence of having won five of their last seven games, including victories over No. 2 U-M, then-No. 4 Illinois and then-No. 5 Ohio State since Feb. 23.
“This team will not hang a banner, they will not have to hang a championship banner. Who knows what’ll happen in the Big Ten or NCAA tournament,” Izzo said. “But if there’s never a banner hung or anything done, this team should be appreciated by our fans for what they went through and what they gave us, because they hung in there, man.”