After an unfamiliar few days filled with another round of off-court issues for a team that’s seen plenty of them this year, Michigan State turned in what’s become a familiar performance to close its regular season.
No. 2 Michigan State beat Wisconsin, 68-63, on Sunday afternoon at the Kohl Center behind a strong closing stretch. In doing so, it captured the Big Ten regular season championship outright for the first time since 2009.
The Spartans (28-3, 16-2) will now be the No. 1 seed in this week’s Big Ten tournament at Madison Square Garden in New York after closing the regular season with 12 straight wins. They will open the tournament at noon on Thursday with a quarterfinal matchup.
Trailing by two with seven minutes remaining, sophomore point guard Cassius Winston hit a go-ahead 3-pointer to kick off an 11-2 run for the Spartans.
Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr. followed with buckets, before Winston hit another 3-pointer to put his team up by seven points, at 58-51, with 4:34 left.
The Badgers (14-17, 7-11) made two more late runs, getting within two points with 3:48 left and cutting the deficit to three points on a 3-pointer with six seconds left. But Bridges and Jackson hit four free throws apiece in the final 1:32.
The late run marked the latest example of Michigan State finishing strong to take control of a close game on the road. Similar second-half efforts earned the Spartans wins at Illinois, Maryland, Iowa and Northwestern as they came from a game back in the standings to take the conference title.
And as he’s been in so many of those runs, Winston was the catalyst. His two critical 3-pointers were part of a 20-point performance, including 6-for-6 from 3-point range.
The win came after multiple stories in the last few three linking Michigan State to the ongoing FBI probe into corruption in college basketball.
The first of those came on Friday morning, when Yahoo! reported that an expense report filled out by an associate of a sports agent listed a $470 in payments to Miles Bridges’ parents.
After Michigan State completed an internal investigation into the allegation, it forwarded its findings on to the NCAA, which cleared Bridges for competition on Saturday.
Yahoo! also reported on Saturday that the same agency employee, Christian Dawkins, wrote in an email to his boss of an attempt to broker a recruit, mentioning Spartans associate coach Dwayne Stephens in particular. Stephens coached as normal in the game.
The distractions appeared to have no effect on the Spartans’ start. Bridges had his normal place in the starting lineup on Sunday, and was booed by Wisconsin fans when he was introduced. He started the game with a miss, but controlled a long rebound and turned it into a two-handed dunk.
That dunk started an eight-point run, as Michigan State seemed poised to win easily against a struggling Wisconsin squad.
Yet Wisconsin came back to tie the game three times and briefly take the lead midway through the second half. The combination of Nick Ward in the post, and some hot shooting from Cassius Winston helped Michigan State to another 10-point first half lead.
A seven-minute Michigan State field goal drought from late in the first half until early in the second helped the Badgers come back and tie the game again.
Badgers guard Brad Davison also scored 13 points in nine minutes to open the second half en route to a 30-point game. That helped the Badgers tie the game twice in the second half, before they took their first lead on an Ethan Happ basket with 9:52 left.
Michigan State, meanwhile, struggled to find offense from most of its stars. After his first dunk, Bridges missed his next 10 shots. Jaren Jackson Jr. missed his first five 3-point tries before finishing with 11 points. Nick Ward recorded 14 points but also notched his fourth foul with 5:53 left and had to sit.
Bridges finished with 10 points despite finishing 3-for-15 from the floor.