INDIANAPOLIS (DETROIT FREE PRESS) - The Michigan State Spartans knew they were looking at a chance for payback against a basketball nemesis when they took the Bankers Life Fieldhouse court Saturday.
But first, they had to beat a different nemesis. And as easy and certain as that looked for much of the day, the Wisconsin Badgers aren't ones to concede lightly. They fought back from a 21-point first-half deficit and got as close as six in the second half before falling, 83-75.
So now the Spartans (25-8) get their crack at Nemesis No. 1 – the Michigan Wolverines, who beat them twice in the regular season on the way to the outright Big Ten title.
No. 1 seed U-M (25-7) and No. 3 seed MSU will meet at 3:30 Sunday for the tournament championship – their first matchup in 17 years of this event – and then find out their NCAA tournament destinations about an hour after they're done.
MSU will be looking for its fourth Big Ten tournament title, which would tie Ohio State for the most in tourney history. This is U-M's first trip to the championship game since it won the inaugural event in 1998, but that was later vacated by NCAA sanctions.
This U-M team is in strong running for an NCAA No. 1 seed, and MSU may be able to snag a No. 3 seed. The Spartans did not have Branden Dawson in both regular-season meetings with U-M because of a broken hand, but he's back now and leading the way for a team that is starting to look more like itself.
Adreian Payne led MSU with 18 points despite more foul trouble, and every MSU starter finished in double figures in scoring – Dawson with 14 points to go with seven rebounds, Denzel Valentine and Gary Harris with 12 apiece, and Keith Appling with 10 – including two key jump shots in the second half to help ward off the No. 2 seed Badgers (26-7). And Travis Trice scored 11 off the bench.
Big man Frank Kaminsky was a load for MSU inside, scoring 28 points to keep Wisconsin in it. But the Badgers were ambushed early and didn't have enough to come back after beating MSU 60-58 athome in the teams' only regular-season meeting.
The Spartans set the immediate tone, with Payne winning the tip and drilling a three-pointer on the first possession. Then he scored in transition on a feed from Harris.
Then MSU got another fast break, and it ended with Valentine bouncing a pass between his legs to a trailing Dawson, who dunked it with two hands. With 1:42 gone in the game, Bo Ryan was down 7-0 and calling a timeout.
The lead would keep growing. It got to 12-5 on a Valentine drive. It got to 19-8 on an Appling lob to Matt Costello. It got to 29-15 after Dawson dropped in an Appling miss, plus a foul and free throw.
Yet another fast break, this one finished by Harris, gave the Spartans a 37-16 lead. The Badgers were in peril.
They recovered to cut the lead to 43-26 at the half and needed to make serious progress in the first few minutes of the second half. They did.
Kaminsky kept hitting and Sam Dekker got loose for a pair of transition dunks, chopping the lead to 10.
And that's when Appling stepped up and drilled a long jump shot, then another after the lead got down to 10 again. Moments later, he drove hard and finished off the glass, plus the foul and free throw.
That stretch helped stabilize the Spartans, pushing their lead to 58-42. The Badgers got back to chipping at it, getting closer and closer as Harris and Payne sat with three fouls apiece.
It was 68-60 after two Traevon Jackson foul shots – after Payne was called for his fourth with 6:10 left, sending him right back to the bench. And then it got down to seven. But a late Harris jumper was among the key plays that would not let it get closer than six.
Contact Joe Rexrode: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @joerexrode. Check out his MSU blog at freep.com/heyjoe.