What a difference expectations make.
Before the season, if you told MSU fans they'd win a Big Ten championship they'd be ecstatic. If you said Ohio State would have to win its final game to get a share of a Big Ten title, they'd be shocked. Yet when MSU lost Sunday, there was disappointment.
We entered the day with both teams in surprising positions. After Michigan took care of Penn State, there was a shot at a three-way tie if MSU couldn't win the title outright. The Spartans jumped out to a big lead early behind a rocking Breslin Center, but Branden Dawson went down with a left knee injury midway through the first half. When Dawson went down, the player he was guarding, William Burford, went off, eventually hitting a game-winning jumper with one second left as the Buckeyes defeated MSU. The end result was a three-way tie, with only two of those teams being happy.
(UPDATE: Dawson tore his ACL, ending his season.)
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It was MSU's first loss on Senior Night since 2006, an especially tough one for Draymond Green, who moved into third place in rebounding in MSU history, but battled foul trouble late and missed two shots in the final minute.
MSU jumped out to a 19-7 lead in the first seven minutes of the game, but the Buckeyes stuck around thanks to free-throw shooting. Ohio State was shooting around 20 percent for much of the half, but kept getting to the free-throw line. At halftime, MSU's lead, which was as big as 15, was 38-29. A bigger worry was Dawson, who went down with 10:15 left in the half and MSU leading by 13. It looked like a left knee injury for Dawson, but it was hard to see what happened.
The Buckeyes shot just 25 percent (7-for-28) in the first half, while MSU shot 52 percent (15-for-29).The difference was that the Buckeyes were 14-for-18 from the free-throw line, compared to 4-for-5 from MSU.
Ohio State opened the second half on a 6-0 run, as the Buckeyes started to hit their shots and MSU missed theirs. Ohio State took its first lead since 2-0 when Deshaun Thomas scored a layup midway though the second half. But Derrick Nix responded with back-to-back three points plays, putting MSU up 57-52. Buford answered with a three with eight minutes left, and it was a one possession game the rest of the way. The Buckeyes were without Jared Sullinger for a sizeable amount of time down the stretch, but it was evened up when Green picked up his fourth foul.
It was the role players who needed to step up. Ohio State had Evan Ravenel score seven points in eight minutes. MSU had Nix scoring 11. In the final three minutes, the Buckeyes would take a lead, but Green would answer with a score. With the game tied, Green missed a fadeaway jumped with 32 seconds left, giving Ohio State a chance at the win. The Buckeyes barely get the ball inside the three-point line, but Buford continued his hot half by nailing a deep two-point jumper with Keith Appling all over him. Green had a decent look at a three-pointer as time expired, but it missed, and MSU lost its first home game of the season. MSU had won 24 straight games when leading at halftime.
The game changed when Dawson went out. Buford scored six in the first half, four of which came before Dawson went out — and those four were on free throws. He finished with 25 points. As inconsistent as Buford has been, he's always dangerous. MSU didn't have a body that could match up with him when Dawson went out. MSU was up 13 when Dawson went out. The Buckeyes outscored MSU by 15 the rest of the day.
In his final game at Breslin Center, Green finished with 19 points, 12 rebounds and three assists, passing Antonio Smith for third all-time in rebounding at MSU. The Senior Night ceremony started out somber, but by all accounts, MSU fans felt good about another Big Ten championship by the end of it.
In his final home game, despite it being his first season at MSU, Brandon Wood turned in what might have been his best performance in Big Ten play. He scored 15 points on 6-for-12 shooting and looked confident in all aspects of his game. He finally looked like the player MSU thought they were getting from Valpo. Better late than never, I guess.
After a zero-assist, seven-turnover game in these teams' previous meeting, Appling was solid, but not spectacular. He finished with 11 points, but shot 4-for-11 and had three assists and three turnovers. MSU had 13 turnovers as a team. On the boards, Ohio State had 11 offensive rebounds, resulting in a 13-2 edge in second-chance points. The Buckeyes had a 37-34 advantage in total rebounds.
MSU had to win one of its final two games to win the Big Ten outright. It didn't, resulting in a painful three-way tie with the Buckeyes and rival U-M. Ohio State has won three straight, MSU has won three in the last four years and Michigan won its first since 1986. The Spartans go into the Big Ten tournament on a slide and questions
But I've got a feeling this Big Ten tournament could be different than most. In most years, MSU doesn't put much emphasis on the conference tournament, but during the postgame ceremony, Izzo said that MSU would go to Indianapolis to "win our championship back." Nix called Sunday's loss the most disappointing of the season and said MSU would have to go win in Indianapolis. The Spartans don't normally go into the Big Ten tournament with a chip on their shoulder, especially when they're the top seed.
As for those Final Four dreams, the Dawson news is a major hit. But MSU made a run to a Final Four just two years ago without Kalin Lucas for most of the time. So crazier things have happened. Still, it's terrible for a kid who had figured things out in Big Ten play, becoming MSU's second-best rebounder. MSU will need its centers to pick things up, like Nix did Sunday and Payne did in the first meeting. As for who will replace Dawson, I would expect Wood to move into the starting lineup and Thornton to move to small forward. Maybe Brandan Kearney and Russell Byrd see more tim there. Gauna?
Right now, I'm sure a lot of MSU fans are feeling the sting of the failure to win the conference outright (and now the Dawson news). But when you look back at the season as a whole, you feel what everyone was saying a week ago: It's amazing MSU won a Big Ten championship in 2012.