Michigan Basketball 2008-2009
Michigan State nearly blows 17-point lead, escapes Penn State
The Michigan State Spartans didn’t show the poise of a highly-ranked team on Wednesday night against Penn State. Then again, they still managed to survive a road trip to Happy Valley, affirming their place atop the Big Ten.
For the first 35 minutes of this conference clash, Michigan State looked like the No. 10 team in the country. Crushing the Nittany Lions on the offensive glass, the Spartans—who hang their hat on rebounding—scored 14 second-chance points to build a 69-59 lead. With equal portions of balance, power and hustle, MSU appeared well on its way to another solid, businesslike win in a hostile building. The swagger of the league’s premier program was very much in evidence.
Suddenly and shockingly, that confidence abruptly evaporated in the game’s final five minutes.
Down the stretch of this duel, Coach Ed DeChellis saw his Nittany Lions buckle down on the boards, making Michigan State a one-and-done team at the offensive end of the floor. The Spartans no longer crashed the glass, and instead settled into a passive mode that featured one nervous three-point attempt after another. Fitting the profile of a team just looking to hang onto victory in the final minutes of regulation, the Spartans stopped competing with the vigor and energy that had earned them a double-digit lead.
MSU’s utter lack of intensity on offense naturally translated to the defensive end of the court, as the Spartans stood around and watched Penn State guard Talor Battle dismantled them in a number of ways. Battle—the leading scorer in the conference—broke down the Spartans with dribble penetration, pull-up jumpers, and deft passing to teammates who came open for buckets when Spartan defenders were late in offering help. By setting up teammates and winning on-on-one confrontations, Battle managed to draw Penn State within a single point with just over one minute left in regulation. Considering Michigan State’s utter absence of dependable perimeter shooting, it seemed that Penn State was ready to complete an astounding comeback from a 55-38 deficit at the 14-minute mark of the second half.
It was then that the Spartans received a gift from the officials, enabling Tom Izzo’s club to carve out a small cushion in the game’s dying moments.
First, a brief bit of background: At the 1:56 mark of regulation, with MSU ahead 69-67, Battle had fouled MSU point guard Kalin Lucas on what was a clear hand-check. Battle’s extended hands touched Lucas’s midsection in a clear attempt to limit Lucas’s freedom of movement. Roughly a minute later, with the Spartan lead now at 71-70, the officiating crew seemed to anticipate a similar foul… a foul that never really occurred.
Lucas started at the top of the key and then dribbled to his left with Battle riding him. However, on this occasion, Battle didn’t reach in. The Penn State guard moved his feet and displayed superb lateral movement, as any defensive player is taught to do. Lucas didn’t commit an offensive foul, but he did extend his arm in an attempt to shield his dribble. The move—reminiscent of John Stockton inserting his limbs inside the reach of a defender to create the appearance of a foul—successfully fooled the nearside official, who was examining the play as it unfolded on the left wing. A whistle blew with 52.4 seconds left, and Lucas—gifted with a phantom foul—was able to hit two more free throws to give the Spartans a 73-70 lead. Michigan State went without a single made field goal attempt in the game’s final 5:35, but because the cagey Lucas was able to get to the line eight times and make six attempts in the final two minutes, the Spartans were still able to win.
Battle continued to throw his best stuff at Michigan State in the final minute, but a timely defensive play by Spartan center Goran Suton—on a hedge move near the top of the key—forced Battle to cough up the ball with roughly 17 seconds left and the Lions trailing, 74-72. When MSU’s Durrell Summers nabbed the loose ball with 14.9 seconds left, Battle had no choice but to commit a quick foul, his fifth of the night. With Battle out, Penn State’s hopes took a big-enough hit; after Summers knocked down both of his free throws to give the Spartans a 76-72 advantage, the outcome had been sealed.
Penn State waged a mighty comeback, and Michigan State frankly faltered in a game that never should have become so close. Yet, because their free-throw shooting managed to hold up when everything else around them crumbled, the Spartans notched their first 4-0 Big Ten start under Coach Tom Izzo. The ability to survive a faulty finish might be a sign that Michigan State is once again ready to regain a long-sought conference crown.
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