(Box score here)
Two years ago, MSU went to Purdue one game after Robbie Hummel had suffered his first season-ending knee injury.
The talk from MSU before the game was that sometimes a team rallies in the first game after something bad happens. The Spartans won the game 53-44 en route to a Big Ten championship. The talk leading into Sunday's game was similar, as Purdue had dismissed Kelsey Barlow and suspended D.J. Byrd for one game.
It almost worked this time. The Boilermakers led the Spartans at halftime behind some hot shooting, but MSU locked down defensively in the second half, coming away with a 76-62 win at Mackey Arena.
With the win, the Spartans (22-5 overall, 11-3 Big Ten) are alone atop the Big Ten standings, one game ahead of Michigan and Ohio State. It was MSU's first regular season sweep of Purdue (17-10, 7-7) since 2004-05.
Draymond Green led MSU with 20 points, along with 10 rebounds and seven assists. It was his fifth game this season with 20-10-5. No other player in Division I has more than two.
Austin Thornton turned in a career-high 17 points and is becoming a well-rounded scoring option for MSU. Thornton shot 6-for-10 and 1-for-3 from three-point range. It was even more impressive since he was sick and threw up in the first half.
The Spartans had held their last seven opponents to less than 40 percent shooting, but the Boilermakers shot 14-for-30 (47 percent) in the first half, talking a 38-35 lead into the locker room. Hummel, who finished with two points on 0-for-11 shooting the first time these teams met, had 18 points at the break on Sunday. The Spartans were in the game because of some surprising individual performances and rebounding — grabbing eight of their 18 misses in the half.
The issue in the first half was defense, and the Spartans more than fixed that in the second. The Boilermakers made just one of their first 23 shots in the second half. As often is the case with MSU, the defense led to offense, and the Spartans got things going on the other end, extending the lead to as much as 16. Purdue would only get as close as eight points the rest of the way.
The second half followed the MSU receipe for success. They started defending, which led to more fast break, which led to more scoring. Although the Boilermakers were shorthanded, the Spartans showed why they are one of the best defensive teams in the country. Add in the variety of scoring options, and you can see why many have the Spartans as a Final Four-caliber team.
Branden Dawson turned in 15 points and 11 rebounds, increasing the ire he draws from Purdue fans. First, he chose MSU over Purdue when being recruited, then he had a little flap with Matt Painter in the last meeting and now he had a double-double and an incredible highlight dunk:
Keith Apping was quiet, but played a solid game. He was scoreless at halftime, having taken just one shot, but he had four assists and no turnovers. He finished with seven points, five assists and three rebounds, along with great defense on Lewis Jackson in the second half. His three-point range shooting remains an issue, but he made some key mid-range jumpers when the Boilermakers tried to rally in the second half.
Derrick Nix made his first four shots and finished with 12 points on 6-for-8 shooting. He struggled on defense when forced to cover Hummel in the first half, but no one on Purdue could handle him down low on offense.
As a team, MSU shot 30-for-59 (50.8 percent), the second straight game the Spartans made more than half their shots. MSU had seven turnovers in the first half, but just two in the second half. The nine turnovers tied a season-low (vs Indiana, at Wisconsin). MSU won the battle on the glass as well, grabbing 11 of a possible 30 rebounds on the offensive end and 33 of 46 on the defensive end — a 44-32 total rebounding edge.
With U-M's defeat of Ohio State last night, MSU sits alone atop the Big Ten standings. The Wolverines' win helps MSU chances for an outright title. The Spartans control their destiny with four games to go. Looking at the NCAA Tournament, the Spartans are in contention for a No. 1 seed, but that's a long ways away, especially given the remaining schedule.
Next up is a road trip to Minnesota on Wednesday. The Gophers are coming off a loss at Northwestern and their NCAA Tournament hopes are hanging by a thread. A win over MSU would obviously boost their chances.
The last time MSU won at Purdue, Wisconsin and Ohio State was 1997-98. The chemistry with this team shows more and more with every game. With Appling and Green struggling in the first half, Nix, Dawson and Thornton carried the offense. No one on this team is selfish, and when someone struggles with one aspect of their game, they help out in some other way. Brandon Wood had just three points, but he had two rebounds, two assists and played strong defense.
We keep saying "Are the Spartans peaking?" It's the opposite of last season, when we kept saying "Is this rock-bottom?" Who knows if the Spartans are peaking. Given the depth of this team, anyone can step up, and that bodes well down the final stretch.