BOWLING GREEN, Ohio -- Michigan State coach Tom Izzo had a bad feeling before he brought his No. 20 Spartans to Bowling Green for a rare road game against the Mid-American Conference school.
He knew firsthand what could happen.
Izzo was an assistant coach with the Spartans 22 years ago when host Bowling Green stunned a top-10 Michigan State team -- and for a while Tuesday night it appeared history might repeat itself.
Freshmen Gary Harris and Denzel Valentine scored 12 points apiece, and Branden Dawson added 10 to lead the Spartans to a 64-53 win over the Falcons.
"Behind closed doors I was worried to death about this game," Izzo said. "I really was."
The Spartans (10-2) struggled to put the game away and were tied at 45-45 midway through the second half when their defense clamped down, holding the Falcons to just two points over a six-minute stretch in the second half and only one field goal the rest of the way.
"If we're going to be a good team, we have to come here and win this game," Izzo said, crediting his defense for wearing down Bowling Green (5-5).
Bowling Green's Chauncey Orr had tied it at 45 with 10 minutes left, but that's when Michigan State's defense took over.
The Spartans went on a 14-2 run highlighted by Dawson's dunk after a steal, drawing a big cheer from the many Michigan State fans filling the Bowling Green arena.
"I think we locked down a lot better," Izzo said. "We started taking things away. Branden Dawson and Derrick Nix did a better job of stepping up on those curls. They run some good stuff and they did a good job of that but we started doing a better job of contesting shots.
"The biggest thing that hurt us early was the rebounding. They got 13 offensive boards, so while we defended them pretty well we were letting them get second shots. That will just give us something else to work on here in this holiday season.
Orr, who had a career-high 16 points, missed the final 10 minutes with cramps after hitting the tying basket. He went to the locker room twice to get treatment.
"We had too many turnovers in the first half and again they were kind of strange ones," Izzo said. "But you come on the road and it's somebody's Fourth of July and Christmas, and give the Orr kid credit, he hit some big shots early and played about as well as he can play. But thank god we found a way to win."
The Falcons couldn't do anything offensively without him. It was a breakout game for Orr, the son of Falcons coach Louis Orr, who was at a loss to explain his team's late drought.
"We were right there," he said. "That's tough to overcome.
"I thought offensively we were really good. It was great to see everybody playing with that kind of confidence."
Still, MSU held Bowling Green to just 32 percent shooting.
It was Michigan State's first time back in Bowling Green since 1990 when they were ranked fifth in the nation, led by Steve Smith, and lost to the Falcons. Former Michigan State coach Jud Heathcote vowed they'd never return.
Few Big Ten teams have been willing to go on the road against Mid-American Conference teams, though most are nearby. Bowling Green has been a giant killer at home over the years, beating three of four Big Ten teams that had visited in the last 22 years prior to Tuesday.
Izzo said he likes taking his teams into tough environments even when it might not be the smartest decision.
"I'll probably keep doing it because I'm dumb," he said.
But this victory over a solid MAC team figures to give his team some experience in winning in a difficult environment, and a Top 150 road win will also look good in the RPI numbers.
Michigan State, normally one of the best rebounding teams in the nation, only had three more rebounds than the Falcons.
"They outworked us on that," Izzo said.
But the Spartans did hold Bowling Green to 33-percent shooting from the field (19-of-58). They also shut down Bowling Green's top scorer, holding Jordon Crawford to 10 points -- six below his average.
"I think Keith Appling took their best player, Crawford, right out of the game and that was a big part of everything," Izzo said. "And I thought Dawson took Calhoun out of the game. One was three-for-10 and the other was four-for-14 and that was the difference in the game. So give those two guys a lot of credit defensively, even though they might have made a lot of mistakes, and Keith didn't play like Keith normally plays, yet he still made some plays and did some things and got six big rebounds. He'll get better. He is the one guy I'm not worried about."
The Spartans had to rely on Harris and Valentine with leading scorer Keith Appling having a tough shooting night.
Harris struggled for the first time all season in his last outing, when he hit just one shot from the field and missed all five 3-point attempts against Tuskegee. Appling matched his career high of 25 points last week, but scored just two in the first half and finished with nine against the Falcons.
Derrick Nix added nine points and eight rebounds for Michigan State.
The Spartans got off to another sluggish start, turning over the ball on three of their first four possessions and giving up several easy baskets in the first half.
Brandan Kearney's jumper at the buzzer put the Spartans up 34-29 at the end of the half.
Orr kept the Falcons close early on, matching his career high for a game with 11 points in the first half.
"I'm not totally pleased, but we got moments out of Branden Dawson and moments out of Derrick Nix," Izzo said. "Keith struggled a little bit tonight but Gary Harris came through a little bit more. And Brandan Kearney, again, being solid and we got a little bit out of Alex Gauna. So we played better."
MSU finished with 15 turnovers.
"Turnovers and executing better so we get cleaner shots," Izzo said, when asked what his team needs to work on in the short term. "The turnover thing was terrible in the first half, but a lot better in the second half.
"This (Bowling Green) is a decent team, it really is, and they run some good stuff and they gave us problems but at the same time give our team credit, not playing our best we found a way to win on the road and I think that will give us a boost."