Not even the high-octane Indiana offense could spoil Valentine’s Day for Michigan State. Their 88-69 victory was their second in a row on the holiday, and the second in a row that Denzel Valentine shined. His timely baskets and adept passing fueled the win, even if he didn’t have to hit a game-winner.

“Gary Harris said it best, he said ‘Coach you gotta schedule more games on Valentine’s Day for Valentine,” said Coach Izzo after the game.

However, it wasn’t all roses for the Spartans. Indiana opened up a 10-point lead on the Spartans midway through the first half. Even the brief return of guard Tum Tum Nairn, who had missed the previous seven games with plantar fasciitis, wasn’t enough to inspire Sparty at that point. The big key for MSU in the huddle, according to Valentine, was to relax.

“I just kinda calmed down, calmed the team down, and we just stuck to our principles, came out and played how we play,” said Valentine.

To dampen the mood even more, walk-on forward Kenny Goins went down with an apparent meniscus injury and did not return the rest of the way. Goins has been the biggest surprise of this MSU squad thus far, providing solid rebounding and defense on the back end of the rotation. Marvin Clark Jr. was called into action to fill the void. Making matters worse, Gavin Schilling picked up two fouls in eight minutes.

But the Spartans’ not-so-secret weapon couldn’t possibly let his Spartans lose on his day. Valentine led an MSU rally at the end of the first half, shutting out the Hoosiers for the final 3:56 of the frame. Sparty clung to a slim 41-40 lead at halftime.

To say Indiana got knocked back on its heels to start the second half is an understatement. The Spartans busted the game wide open with a 16-2 run, capped off by a Valentine three from the top of the key.

IU could not get anything going on offense the entire second half. The Big Ten’s best scoring offense was held to a paltry 32.3 percent shooting in the period. The Spartan defense clamped down on one of the most lethal scoring threats in the nation, Yogi Ferrell.

The guard was hounded the entire game, finishing with only nine points on 3-10 shooting. Ferrell normally keeps defenses up at night, but MSU will sleep quite well after shutting him down, thanks in large part to the performance of Eron Harris.

“He did the best job I’ve seen out of him in the Big Ten so far,” said Valentine. “He was really aggressive, stayed disciplined and played really tough defense on (Ferrell).”

Valentine will get all the glory from this win, and deservedly so. His 30 points, five boards and career-high 13 dimes is nothing to scoff at. But senior Matt Costello was a spark plug in the paint.

He went off for a career-high 22 points and added 11 rebounds, missing only two shots along the way. The forward has been extending his range as of late, taking (and making) the occasional three-pointer. With Goins going down and Schilling plagued with foul trouble, the Spartans leaned on Costello. And he delivered.

Former Wolverine Max Bielfeldt fueled most of that first half run and had one of his best games of the season. The senior finished with a team-high 15 points and 10 boards, and played a phenomenal inside-out game.

One area Valentine improved drastically in was his assist-to-turnover ratio. He dished out 13 helpers and only gave up the ball once. Not only does that look good on the stat sheet, but it pays dividends on the court.

“There’s games where I have five, six turnovers and five, six assists,” said Valentine. “My assist to turnover ratio was the best and that led to good shots, more possessions, more shots for people.”

Injuries

Michigan State got a big piece of their rotation back when Nairn returned to action. After seven games off, it was understandable that Coach Izzo only played him two minutes. But even two minutes is encouraging progress. With Nairn sidelined, MSU is without a true point guard on the floor. Even though he is not a scorer, Nairn directs the offense and runs the break better than anyone.

“He hadn’t even practiced really,” said Izzo, “half a practice in a month. He probably won’t practice tomorrow or the next day, very little. We’re hoping it’ll be back to how it was in December, painful, won’t practice as much, but can still play. If we can get something out of him, 10 minutes a game, he’s willing to do that for us.”

On a sour note, sophomore forward Goins is in jeopardy of missing the rest of the season. According to Coach Izzo, he injured his meniscus during the first half. Goins is averaging 2.2 points and 3.1 rebounds per game off the bench, but his impact transcends the stat sheet. Clark will be tasked with filling in for the duration, after barely playing all season.

“I heard that they’re a little worried about his meniscus,” said Izzo. “It’s a shame because he has been playing good. I go a week and a half without an injury, that’s probably not normal.”

Big Ten race

With the win, the Spartans improve to 8-5 in conference play, two and a half games behind Iowa for first place. With only five games remaining, MSU would need a considerable amount of help at the top for any chance at the regular season title.

For Indiana, the loss drops them to 10-3, only a half game back of first. Losing this game bruised their chances of taking over first after defeating Iowa Thursday night. But the Hoosiers are still within striking distance.

Next up

The Spartans will suit up Thursday night for a home contest with Wisconsin. MSU fell short earlier this year in Madison 77-76. After a rocky start to the season that included losses to Western Illinois and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the Badgers have righted the ship, winning their last seven games. Wisconsin even knocked off Maryland in College Park on Saturday, who was nursing a 27-game home winning streak.

Tip-off is set for 9 p.m. and the game will be televised on ESPN.

Originally posted: http://impact89fm.org/sports/valentine-sweet-on-valentines-day/

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