Moritz Wagner mean-mugged and winked his way around Breslin Center on Saturday.
Tom Izzo saw. Jaren Jackson Jr. saw. Michigan State fans saw.
And there was nothing they could do about it.
“Watching them celebrate? It was sick,” freshman forward Jackson said. “Everything about it was sick. It’s never a good feeling.”
If this was the Spartans’ only chance this season against Michigan, then the Wolverines muscled and wrested one item from MSU's goal sheet.
Wagner scored 27 points and sparked a momentum-seizing 11-2 run deep into the second half. The Spartans had few answers and fewer big-moment plays from their stars in an 82-72 loss in the only scheduled meeting this season between the two rivals.
“We’re the ones that are supposed to be out-toughing people. To be out-toughed on our home floor by our rival school is embarrassing,” said MSU sophomore Miles Bridges, who finished with 19 points. “It’s something you gotta have. If we’re gonna win a championship, then we’re gonna have to out-tough some teams.”
It was the second loss in a week for MSU (16-3, 3-2 Big Ten), along with at Ohio State last Sunday, and the Spartans needed overtime at home to squeak by Rutgers on Wednesday. After surging to No. 1 in the country, they are likely to drop again when the polls are released Monday.
MSU struggled to stop Wagner, who scored a career high to lead the Wolverines (15-4, 4-2). The junior made 8 of 13 shots and hit all eight of his free throws. They also could not contain Zavier Simpson, who had 16 points and five assists and abused Spartans guards along with Wagner in the pick-and-roll game.
“I’m disappointed to play this way against your rival and to watch Wagner celebrate on the court,” Izzo said. “But at the same time he deserved to. He Scott Skiles-ed it – he talked it, he walked it and he played it. I respect that, I really do.
“I think we really gotta do a little soul-searching.”
Jackson finished with 19 points, 10 of them at the free-throw line, and added six blocks for the Spartans. Bridges went just 3 of 9 shooting in the second half after making 4 of 5 early, finishing with six rebounds and five assists. Cassius Winston added 11 points.
However, Bridges and Winston combined for eight of MSU’s 18 turnovers, which led to 26 U-M points.
“When you turn over the ball that much,” senior captain Tum Tum Nairn said, “you just don’t give yourself a chance.”
The Spartans shot just 34.8 percent in the second half, while the Wolverines made 12 of 24 shots and went 23 of 30 at the free-throw line.
The teams traded the lead 13 times and were tied 11 other instances until the Wolverines’ pull-away stretch. Neither led by more than five points in the first half before the Spartans closed on an 8-2 run, including four straight points from Winston and a thunderous alley-oop jam by Gavin Schilling off a Winston lob, to take a 37-34 lead into the locker room.
MSU shot a sizzling 56.5 percent while holding U-M to just 36.4 percent. However, U-M made 5 of 12 3-point attempts to keep things close. Wagner scored 13 in the opening period, including a pair of baskets from behind the arc.
The plan changed for the Wolverines after halftime. They began to drive and draw fouls. U-M scored six straight at the free-throw line, then got a dunk in transition by Isaiah Livers off a Bridges turnover, to pull back ahead, 42-39.
But MSU once again countered. Xavier Tillman drove for a layup, then set up Bridges with a backdoor bounce pass for a dunk. Jackson’s two free throws with 8:24 to play put the Spartans ahead 55-54.
But Wagner answered for Michigan. His 3-pointer at the other end of the court started the 11-2 run over a 3-minute segment, capped by a layup by Simpson that put the Spartans in an eight-point hole with 5:03 to play.
Jackson got MSU back within four with a 3-pointer and a free throw, but Wagner hit back-to-back buckets that ended the Spartans’ comeback attempt.
“Moe just made huge plays,” Michigan coach John Beilein said.
MSU gets six days off before returning to Big Ten play at home against Indiana on Friday (7 p.m./Fox Sports 1), which will close out a three-game homestand. Seven of the Spartans’ last 11 games are on the road.
“This will hurt for a day or two, because this is a big game to me,” Izzo said. “I’m going to address a couple of guys on the grit that you have to have to play in the Big Ten. I don’t mean play like last year when we you’re playing to win some games. I mean when you’re playing to win big games.
“Some guys have to grow up a little bit. And they will.”