“There’s blood in the water, and the sharks are coming.”
Those were the grim words of Tom Izzo after the game. For the third time in a row, and second in East Lansing, Nebraska beat Michigan State. Blood in the water might be putting it lightly.
With the nightmare week seemingly in the rearview mirror, MSU (16-4, 3-4) looked to bounce back with a home game against the Cornhuskers (12-8, 4-3).
Nebraska star Shavon Shields hit a nifty floater over Javon Bess to put the Huskers up 68-62 with under three minutes left. MSU had a tough time defending the 6-7 senior, who went off for 28 points on 12-20 shooting. Shields took a nasty spill in the first half and almost didn’t return to the game. Luckily for Coach Miles and company, he gutted it out and gave a career performance.
“I just told him at halftime, ‘If you don’t feel like you can go, you’re not letting us down,’” said Nebraska head coach Tim Miles. “But boy, did he go.”
The Spartans were rapidly approaching the danger zone, but Husker Tai Webster missed a pair at the charity stripe that would have extended the lead to eight. Instead, Bess was fouled grabbing the rebound and knocked down both free throws. A four-point swing electrified the crowd going down the stretch.
With Nebraska in the double bonus and MSU in the bonus, a free throw contest was clearly in the cards. Deyonta Davis stepped to the line with 1:34 left and split his freebies, bringing MSU within three. Webster redeemed himself on the following possession, knocking down two at the line.
Eron Harris banged in a cold-blooded three with a hand in his face to cut the score to 70-68 with 45 seconds left. Shields responded with a turnaround jumper to put Nebraska up four and seemingly break the back of MSU. But they weren’t done yet.
With time running out, Denzel Valentine hit a desperation bank-shot three between two defenders to make the score 72-71 and inject some hope into the Spartans with five seconds left. After a timeout, they quickly fouled Webster and sent him to the line for a one-and-one. His shot rimmed out and the Spartans went on the break one last time.
Valentine weaved through the defense and hoisted up a jumper that was just off. Nebraska pulled off yet another upset in East Lansing, 72-71.
“Some of the turnovers and some of the defensive mistakes and small mistakes we made, we just didn’t play very smart tonight,” said senior Bryn Forbes. “We gave some effort but didn’t play smart at all.”
Coach Miles had a tough time explaining his success against Tom Izzo.
“Luck. Just lucky,” said Miles. “I learn so much about winning basketball when I scout his teams. Maybe we’re just fired up to play him.”
One glaring reason for MSU’s loss was the offensive absence of Forbes. He suffered through one of his worst shooting nights, going 1-8 from the field.
“He had good shot shots,” said Izzo. “I give Bryn those shots every day of the week. Nobody feels worse about it than him. There were shots that he makes, those were the best shots he’s had. I don’t think it’s his confidence in his shooting.”
In his last three games, Forbes is averaging 5.7 points per game and shooting merely 22.7%. Through the shooting struggles and losses, he says the team’s confidence isn’t lost.
“I don’t think we’re throwing the season away at all”, said Forbes. “We’re gonna come out next game and try and get a win and try and win the rest out.”
Another key contributor to the lackluster performance was Tum Tum Nairn’s injury. Even though he may not put up impressive offensive numbers, he is the engine that makes MSU’s offense hum.
“Tum Tum brings a lot of energy, he’s a really good defender, he pushes the ball and he ran our offense very well,” said freshman Matt McQuaid, who scored two points on just 1-6 shooting.
Valentine scored 11 of the team’s first 14 points, en route to a 24 point performance. He also added six assists and six rebounds. Eron Harris dealt with foul trouble most of the first half but shot the ball superbly at a 5-6 clip. Matt Costello went down with an ankle injury halfway through the second and returned in the final seconds. He narrowly missed a double-double with eight points and 10 rebounds. Coach Izzo said he “rolled his ankle.”
Free throws once again became the Achilles heel for the Spartans. They were just 12-21 from the stripe, while Nebraska was 10-14.
“We need to shoot better from the line and that’s a huge thing if we want to win games,” said Valentine. “We kind of messed up on that, and we can’t do that if we want to win big games.”
The schedule doesn’t get any easier. Up next for MSU is a date with No. 5/7 ranked Maryland on Saturday. Not exactly the matchup you want in the middle of a three-game losing streak.
“We need to come out and be ready to play,” said Valentine. “Maryland is a great team and has good players. We just can’t make late game mistakes. We’ve been playing well enough the last few games, we just haven’t played smart enough.”
ESPN’s College Gameday will be in East Lansing to cover the contest. The show goes live at 11 a.m., and doors open to the public at 9 a.m. Izzone members are allowed to enter 30 minutes early. Tip-off is scheduled for 6:30 p.m.