MADISON, Wis. - Michigan State squandered an opportunity to come out of what could have been a pivotal weekend in the Big Ten race with a one-game cushion on second-place Michigan.
Instead, after a frustrating 60-58 loss in the final seconds at Wisconsin, the Spartans fall back into a first-place tie with the Wolverines, heading into the final seven conference games of the year.
The Spartans may have to play at least a few more of them without senior point guard Keith Appling. Appling missed the Wisconsin game with continued complications from a wrist injury, marking his second straight game on the bench.
"I've got a feeling that Appling's out for a couple weeks," said head coach Tom Izzo. "I have no idea. I can't answer the same questions, and I don't blame you for asking. There's no break. There's no stress fracture. He can't even pass the ball; he can't move his hand."
All five of Michigan State's regular starters, plus sixth man Travis Trice, have missed at least two games with injuries or illness, as the Spartans have tried to battle through with remnants of the preseason No. 2-ranked team in the country.
No. 9 ranked Michigan State (20-4, 9-2) has home games in the coming days against Northwestern and Nebraska. Izzo is choosing to ignore the pain of Appling's absence. "I'm not going to even think about him (Appling) this week," Izzo said.
Michigan State thought it had forced overtime against the Badgers when Adreian Payne hit a 3-pointer to tie the game at 58-58 with :08 seconds left.
But Wisconsin's Traevon Jackson shook loose from defender Gary Harris and hit a pull-up jumper from about 15 feet at the right wing, to provide the winning points.
Trice's half court shot at the buzzer barely missed off the rim.
"Our margin for error is the slimmest it's been since I walked on this campus," Izzo said. "Our kids fought back, they didn't quit - all those good things you usually think about. But we didn't play very smart and we missed some plays that you can't miss on the road and win games."
Gary Harris had a miserable game, going 3-of-20 from the field and 0-for-7 from 3-point range. He simply had a lot of good-looking shots rim out on him. He described his game as "horrible."
"I don't know how to phrase it any other way than I just sucked today," Harris told the Detroit Free Press.
'It Wouldn't Drop For Gary'
"I felt sorry for Gary," Izzo said. "Every time he went to the hole I felt he got hit, and he never got a call. I'm just so sick of it. And he was frustrated. It's frustrating for everybody."
Harris didn't have one trip to the foul line. Wisconsin held a 20-9 edge in free throw attempts. MSU didn't attempt its first free throw until the midway point of the second half.
"It wouldn't drop for Gary all game," Izzo said. "We had some good looks, some good shots and we just didn't make them. You're going to have those days. I kept going to him. That may be my fault but you have to rely on the guys that got you here, and Gary's Gary. I have faith in him, but tonight just wasn't his night."
Harris managed to hit one huge field goal on a catch-and-shoot, fall-away jumper from 19-feet to cut the lead to 58-55.
Then a missed Badger free throw set up Payne's game-tying triple.
Starting center Matt Costello played only two minutes in the first half after collecting two early fouls, and played only 14 minutes for the game - further exacerbating MSU's depth problems along the front line without Branden Dawson, who is out with a broken hand.
"Give our guys credit," Izzo said. "The foul trouble we got in, with the way the officiating was - it was just hard to play. We played with I don't even know who was on the court at times.
"It is very, very disappointing to lose a game like this when I think we could have won the game."
Payne, in his second game back after missing seven with a foot injury, scored a game-high 24 points. He was 9-of-16 from the field and 2-of-3 from 3-point range with four rebounds.
"He played a lot better in the second half," Izzo said of Payne. "In the first half, he struggled a little bit. He really struggled defensively. But in the second half he played a lot more in control, did a better job."
With :14 seconds left and MSU down by 3, Izzo drew up a play to go to Payne during a time out, using Harris as a decoy. Payne set a double-screen and then popped out for an open triple as Wisconsin miscommunicated on a switch. Trice fed him the ball on time and Payne nailed the 3-pointer from near the top of the key. That field goal marked the first tie since it was 22-22.
"We executed that last 3-pointer as well as we've executed any play in the last 10 years," Izzo said. "So give Payne credit - he hit a big shot when he was dead tired.
"Once (Payne) hit that three, I felt like, 'Hey, if we go into overtime we'll be fine.'"
But Jackson ended those hopes with an end-to-end drive, going between-his-legs and then gaining a half-step on Harris with a crossover. As Harris sprinted to catch up, Jackson stopped and pulled-up from 14 feet for the game-winner.
"I've watched two years' worth of Jackson hitting game-winning shots, so I put my best defender on him," Izzo said. "And he hit another one.
"I don't blame Gary for that. You couldn't double him, because they've got so many shooters."
And Harris couldn't get physical with Jackson, per the new rules. Jackson capitalized as he went untouched for the basket.
"We did a lot of good things, did some bad things and we just didn't guard like we needed to guard in the critical (moments). We made some dumb plays going after some steals."
Wisconsin had lost five of its last seven and three straight home games after vaulting into the national top five earlier in the season.
"Just (because) they lost a couple of home games - and that's un-American in the Cheesehead State - don't kid yourself. They're a very good team," Izzo said.
"We just have to learn from it," Payne said. "We can't come out and not play the first half and try to finish the second half and expect to win the game, especially on the road."
Costly Defensive Breakdowns
Three major defensive breakdowns were costly for the Spartans, resulting in two late 3-pointers by the Badgers, and a short jumper.
Three of UW's last four field goals were as a result of these breakdowns - one each by Payne, Trice and Costello.
Wisconsin took a 52-46 lead on a short Frank Kaminsky jumper after Payne erred in his defensive assignment. He jumped out to hedge up versus a ball screen when he was supposed to fall back or hedge laterally. Falling back or hedging laterally would have enabled him to recover toward Kaminsky without leaving Kaminsky open.
Payne hedged up, apparently expecting a Spartan teammate, usually a small forward, to rotate onto Kaminsky for help.
Seconds later, after Trice finished an acrobatic lay-up, MSU called time out and Izzo emphatically corrected Payne on the assignment.
"We didn't execute well enough on the road to win a game like this," Izzo said after the game.
[Ironically, Payne, Trice and Harris executed a lateral-hedge defensive system against a ball screen, resulting in a turnover earlier in the second half. That was the play that ended with Payne's dunk behind called off due to goaltending. The point is that they played the ball screen correctly on that play, and it shouldn't have been difficult to stay with that method the rest of the way.]
After Trice missed the front end of a one-and-one trip that could have pulled MSU to within 2 with 4:00 to play, Wisconsin's Ben Brust was left open for a 3-pointer from the right wing.
What went wrong on that play? Valentine and Trice miscommunicated. Valentine left Brust open, thinking Trice was going to switch onto him, during a pick-and-pop play. Instead, both Trice and Valentine guarded the same player while Brust came open. That dagger gave the Badgers a 55-48 lead with 3:37 to play.
Then after Payne went 1-of-2 from the foul line to cut the lead to 55-53, Kaminsky made a 3-pointer from the right wing as Costello erred in his assignment. That made it 58-53 with :30 seconds left.
As was the case with Payne's earlier error, Costello hedged out high to obstruct the point guard after a ball screen. When Costello did that, it leaves the man he was guarding open, popping out on the other side after setting the screen.
If Costello's teammates know he is going to do that, MSU can execute a three-man switch with an MSU forward ending up on Costello's man. But MSU's teammates weren't on the same page with Costello on this possession. No one went with Kaminsky when Costello hedged out on the point guard with Trice.
"I called a certain way we defend ball screens and it was not appropriate for the situation," Costello told the Free Press. "I should have just called a switch and that got us messed up."
A straight switch would have resulted in Trice on Kaminsky, which is a mismatch favoring UW, but not when it's 20 feet from the rim and the shot clock running down. That was the defense MSU preferred in that situation.
"That was completely my brain fart, my fault," Costello said.