For three graduating players on the MSU men's basketball team, Tuesday couldn’t have been better.
The No. 2 Spartans (27-3, 12-2 Big Ten) defeated Illinois 81-61 to clinch at least a share of the Big Ten regular season championship, the eighth under head coach Tom Izzo. The team’s 27 regular season wins is now the most in program history.
The win puts MSU in a position to finish lone atop the Big Ten with a victory against Wisconsin on Sunday.
However, it also marked the last game senior Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn Jr., fifth-year Gavin Schilling and graduate transfer Ben Carter would play at the Breslin Center.
To celebrate the feat, a banner was raised and the Big Ten Championship trophy was presented to the team — just the way the seniors wanted it.
“It means everything,” Carter said. “We set out to accomplish certain goals at the beginning of the season, and this was the first of them. To have at least a share and to do that on senior night is everything we looked to accomplish when we were putting in work.”
Nairn, Schilling and Carter each started for the first time this season, which was suggested by sophomore Cassius Winston, who had started all 29 games until Tuesday.
Of the 41 minutes played between the three seniors, the most nerve-wracking came with under a minute remaining: when they were called to the bench one last time at the Breslin, but first kissed the Spartan logo at midcourt to a standing ovation.
They checked out and let the underclassmen take their place on the floor — and symbolically taking their reign with them.
“I dreamed of kissing the Spartan head and having the opportunity to raise the banner, the trophy, and having my mom here, my teammates — it was an unbelievable experience,” Nairn said. “I couldn’t handle it. For real. I was trying to. With the magnitude of the game and what was at stake, with it being my last time playing here, that was the hardest game I have ever played in.”
The sentiment was shared with the other seniors. Admittedly to them, it’s difficult to fathom their careers as student athletes are nearing an end.
Carter: He might have spent the least amount of time as a Spartan, but Izzo said he thought Carter spent the longest kissing the Spartan head.
“I thought he’d kiss the floor and the 15,000 fans,” Izzo said. “He sure deserved his time — he had six years. He’s going on Medicare next week, so he’s been here a long time.”
Carter, a 6-foot-9, 235-pound native of Las Vegas, first arrived to East Lansing last season.
After playing two seasons with Oregon, Carter sat out in 2014-15 and transferred to UNLV, where he played in 22 games before he suffered a knee injury that ended his season in January.
He transferred to MSU, but missed the 2016-17 season after he suffered another knee injury on the first official day of practice. He was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA last May.
“I’ve looked back on my college career and as far as my on the court success, it hasn’t really panned out the way I envisioned,” Carter said. “But with that being said, I’ve taken everything as a lesson and I’ve learned to look at things differently. I don’t have any regrets.”
After six years of working in the classroom, Carter is aiming toward his master’s degree in kinesiology.
His collegiate career might not have gone as planned, and his time at MSU may have been short-lived, but hoisting up a March Madness trophy in San Antonio would be worth it for Carter.
“When I came here I had a goal to win championships, and that was one of the main reasons why I decided to come in the first place. And to be able to contend for that is a dream come true,” he said.
Schilling: Schilling didn’t have to stay.
Schilling, a 6-foot-9 forward who was born in Germany but grew up in Chicago, was MSU’s most experienced player heading into this season. He played in 100 games for MSU before being granted a fifth year of eligibility, but has been benched in favor of freshman standout Jaren Jackson Jr. this season.
“It’s a pretty bittersweet feeling, I guess,” he said prior to the game. “It’s going to be an emotional night for me, thinking back on all the memories I had and the ups and downs I encountered.”
Schilling, who started 33 games and shot a team-best 58.2 percent from the floor his sophomore season when the Spartans went to the Final Four in 2015, missed all of last season with a knee injury.
But to Schilling, the team matters more.
“He has embraced his role, too, you get young guys like Jaren starting in front of him,” Izzo said. “There could have been a lot of dissension and complaining, you just haven’t seen it at all.”
Leaving MSU was never something Schilling said he considered, and even though injuries might have set his career back, he has a chance to bring another National Championship to East Lansing. And even though it meant he wouldn’t play as much, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
“I’ve always tried to look at the positive side of things,” Schilling said. “Even through how bad it is, I try to always look at the positive side of things. … Now I’m able to play this year and make an impact this year is something I was looking forward to ever since I was injured, making that happen made me really grateful.”
Schilling said he’s unsure what the future holds for him, but he wants basketball to be a part of it.
Schilling graduated with a degree in advertising and is finishing a master’s degree in French, one of three languages he is fluent in.
“Right now, I’m just focusing on my present,” he said. “Being able to have a degree in my pocket is something that can stick with me, and I’ll be able to use it in the future.”
Nairn: Picture playing basketball on a court filled with broken glass, covered in dirt because of the abandoned building beside it. Picture having to shoot the ball into a crate with no backboard attached to it.
Nairn experienced these circumstances firsthand.
Standing at 5-foot-10 and playing a sport predicated on height, Nairn knew at an early age the odds were against him, and have been throughout his entire basketball journey.
That journey started in Nassau, Bahamas, where he showed off his speed and sprinted up and down those dirt-filled courts.
“Where I’m from, kids don’t get the opportunity to do what I’ve done in their lifetime,” Nairn said.
At just 13 years old, Nairn left his family and moved to the U.S. to attend school and pursue his hoops dreams.
When Nairn first arrived at MSU in 2014, he said he couldn’t believe how far he had come from his humbling upbringing in the Bahamas.
“When I was a freshman and I walked in there and saw my picture, I sent the picture to my mom and I was like, ‘I’m at Michigan State,’” Nairn said. “It was so exciting for me because nobody who I grew up with is doing what I’m doing.”
Since his first year at MSU, Nairn has developed a close bond with Izzo, who said the senior’s abilities transcend the basketball court.
“I have a feeling he’s going to want to get into motivational speaking. He’s going to want to do something that shares himself with as many people as he can touch,” Izzo said.
MSU made it all the way to the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament in Nairn’s freshman season. The senior said beating Louisville in the Elite Eight to reach the Final Four is the memory he cherishes the most in his collegiate career.
“I just remember when the buzzer went off and running to hug Marvin (Clark Jr.) and saying, ‘Man, we did it,”’ Nairn said. “Many players set a goal to get to a Final Four and they never do it in college—I did it in my first year as a freshman.”
MSU has not made it back to the Final Four since 2015, but the current squad has the young talent, combined with veteran leadership from players such as Nairn, to do so. The team took another step toward that by winning at least a share of the Big Ten regular season title by beating Illinois Tuesday.
After all the postgame celebrations Tuesday, Nairn said he was grateful for it all.
“I could have never written this down, winning a Big Ten championship on my senior night. It’s just something that I’m extremely thankful for, and God has blessed me with so many amazing opportunities,” Nairn said.
Nairn is working toward completing his degree in communication, and the senior, like the rest of his teammates, knew Tuesday night wasn’t the end of his journey. He had one final message for the crowd.
“We’re not done yet.”