The No. 9 Spartans had a chance to take the outright lead in the Big Ten race, but Nebraska had other ideas.
Led by Terran Petteway’s 23 points, the Huskers spoiled senior guard Keith Appling’s return to the court by topping the Spartans at home, 60-51.
It was the lowest score MSU (21-5 overall, 10-3 Big Ten) has been held to all season, and only the second time they failed to score at least 60 points.
After the game, head coach Tom Izzo repeated “we got what we deserved” a handful of times, but ultimately said the team didn’t head into the game with enough focus.
“We did what non-championship teams do,” Izzo said. “We did not bring it, we did not defend, we did not play smart and we did not play with the toughness that most of our teams play with.”
Falling off the game plan allowed Nebraska to start the game on a 13-4 run, all starting with a 3-pointer made by Walter Pitchford eight seconds into the game. Pitchford scored 12 of his 18 points in the first half as well.
“Pitchford … when he hit that first one, our bench just said ‘are you kidding me?’” Izzo said. “After talking about it this much? It wasn’t even a pick-and-pop, it was just a pop-out and shoot. We got what we deserved, and the only guy that takes the blame for that is me.”
Appling, who was marked as a game-time decision, checked in less than five minutes into the game while the Huskers (14-10, 6-6) jumped out to their hot start. In his first action in three games because of an injured wrist, Appling only scored two points while committing two turnovers in 19 minutes of action.
“I feel like I haven’t even played,” Appling said with a laugh.
Appling’s lone jump shot came in the second half in the form of a baseline 3-pointer with the end result being an airball. When asked about how many outside shots he practiced in the week leading up to the game, he said that was his first one.
The offense was collectively underwhelming in Appling’s return to the court, shooting just 34 percent percent from the field and 5-of-24 from 3-point land.
Without redshirt freshman forward Kenny Kaminski’s 3-of-6 shooting from long range, the Spartans would have shot a lowly 2-of-18 from 3-point range.
Sophomore guard Gary Harris was a bright spot for MSU, as he led the team in scoring with 18 points, but on 5-of-15 shooting from the field. Senior forward Adreian Payne also joined Harris in double-figure scoring with 11 points of his own.
The Spartans did themselves no favors in the first half, letting Nebraska jump to a 32-25 lead at the break. MSU shot itself in the foot by committing five turnovers in the last five minutes of the first half.
The Huskers broke out of the half on the shoulders of Pitchford, who scored the first four points to get to a 36-25 lead. The 11-point lead was the Huskers’ biggest lead, as the Spartans slowly but surely got themselves back into the game.
With 5:48 on the clock, sophomore guard Denzel Valentine hit a layup to bring the score to 48-44. Petteway didn’t enjoy that, so he knocked down a 3-pointer to extend their lead to seven.
He wasn’t done shooting daggers into MSU.
Payne got the crowd to its maximum volume after getting the score to 51-49 with four minutes to play, but Petteway silenced the home crowd shortly after.
With time expiring on the shot clock, Petteway buried a deep 3-pointer with Payne in his face to make it a five-point game.
“It just felt like he was unstoppable” Payne said. “It seemed like he could throw up anything and it would go in, and it just seemed like we didn’t have an answer for it.”
The next chance for MSU to climb back came with just more than a minute on the clock. The combination of Payne’s lengthy jump and Pitchford’s defense caused Payne to miss the layup that would have made the game 54-53 to Nebraska’s advantage.
The full Izzone, who watched their last game of the season, collectively groaned as the ball fired off the backboard. MSU never smelt a close game the rest of the afternoon.
Nebraska took exceptional care of the ball, only committing five turnovers with just one in the second half. The grittiness on defense displayed by the Huskers also had Izzo reminiscing on his own teams from the past.
“Nebraska, they were junkyard dogs,” Izzo said. “It reminded me of some of our old teams. They took it at us, they talked it, they walked it, they played it. I thought they were tough, I thought they played well defensively and I thought they made some incredible shots.”
Led by Payne’s nine rebounds and Valentine’s eight, the Spartans out-rebounded the Huskers 39-36, but still allowed Nebraska to grab 10 offensive boards.
The Spartans have a four-day break before they hit the road against Purdue (15-10, 5-7), making it the last game before a crucial showdown against Michigan in Ann Arbor.