Big Ten Tournament Notebook – Michigan State defeats Michigan 65-60 to capture Big Ten tournament title

By Neel Madhavan
Medill Reports

The five-day Big Ten Tournament kicked off with thousands of people pouring into the United Center Wednesday evening, March 13 as the games culminated with the championship on March 17. Step back through the highlights for your favorite Big Ten teams.

March 17

With about 2 minutes left in the Big Ten tournament title game, Michigan State trailed Michigan by five points, 60-55. From the top of the key, Spartans junior guard Cassius Winston drove towards the paint and dished a pass to senior guard Matt McQuaid on the wing.

McQuaid promptly rose up and drained one of his Big Ten tournament championship game record-breaking seven three-pointers to cut the deficit to two.

From that point on, Michigan State could do no wrong and Michigan collapsed, as the Spartans closed out the game on a 10-0 run to win their first Big Ten tournament championship since 2016, 65-60.

“I’ve never been prouder of a team in my life,” said Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo. “Cassius was unbelievable and McQuaid was even better than him. And Xavier (Tillman) made some big plays, and we found a way to beat a very good team that, as I said, probably outplayed us more than we outplayed them.”

A few minutes into the second half, Michigan had built its largest lead of the game, 13 points, and looked on the verge of running away with the title.

“We just stuck with each other,” said Winston, who was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player after the game. “We trusted each other, and we did everything for our teammates. It wasn’t selfish. We did everything for our teammates and our guys had our backs.”

Michigan State junior guard Cassius Winston cuts down the net at the United Center in Chicago. Winston was named the Big Ten tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. (Neel Madhavan/MEDILL)

McQuaid and his 27 points proved key to Michigan State clawing its way back into the game.

The Spartans were playing for more than just a championship. They were playing for a fallen teammate, too. Late in the first half, redshirt junior forward Kyle Ahrens jumped up for a loose ball and landed awkwardly on his leg. As he lay motionless on the United Center floor, the crowd fell silent as a stretcher wheeled out to take him to the locker room.

Although X-rays would reveal that there was no fracture in his leg, Izzo said the injury was severe enough that he was done for the season and would not be able to play in the NCAA tournament.

“Every huddle today, we said Ahrens, this one’s for Ahrens,” Winston said. “He gave us his all so we’re going to give him our all, all the way through.”

The Wolverines missed out on being the first team in Big Ten history to win three consecutive tournament championships, but still, like the Spartans, earned a No. 2 seed in the upcoming NCAA tournament.

“This one hurts, but we’ve got to forget about it now,” Michigan senior guard Charles Matthews said. “We’ve got to focus on the tournament. We’ve got to keep moving forward. We’ve got to play better.”

Michigan’s offensive identity a product of point guard play

Michigan vs. Michigan State in the final minutes of the Big Ten championship game when the Spartans stole the lead at the United Center in Chicago. (Neel Madhavan/MEDILL)

So much of Michigan’s success under head coach John Beilein has been the result of steady, consistent guard play and a free-flowing offensive system.

“If you compare to other teams, going all the way back to Darius Morris, to Trey Burke, Derrick Walton, Zavier Simpson – great point guards make very good teams,” Beilein said.

Simpson had 11 assists in the Wolverines’ quarterfinal win over Iowa, nine assists in the semifinal win over Minnesota and 10 assists in the championship game against Michigan State.

As the point guard pulling the strings on the floor for the Wolverines, he’s averaging 6.6 assists per game this season, 11th-best in the country. He is the engine that makes Michigan’s offense go.

Michigan guard Zavier Simpson warms up ahead of the Big Ten title game against Michigan State at the United Center in Chicago. (Neel Madhavan/MEDILL)

“I’m just trying to make the right play,” Simpson said. “We’re really moving the ball which is important, especially in a tournament like this. It’s important that we set our pride aside and be unselfish.”

As a team, the Wolverines are averaging just 13.9 assists per game this season, but had 24 assists against Iowa, 21 against Minnesota and 17 against Michigan State.

“I think that it’s pretty consistent with the teams we’ve always had,” Beilein said. “Guys that will share the ball, a lot of shooters, a lot of skilled guys, a big center who can shoot a little bit, and that’s the identity of many of our players.”

Big Ten basketball fans journey far-and-wide to Chicago for conference tournament

March 16

Video by Neel Madhavan/Medill)

Minnesota upsets No. 13 Purdue in quarterfinals

Minnesota cheerleaders root on the Golden Gophers during game against Michigan in Big Ten tournament semifinal at the United Center in Chicago. (Neel Madhavan/MEDILL)

March 15

Senior forward Jordan Murphy and junior guard Amir Coffey combined for 48 points to lead Minnesota to an upset win over No. 13 Purdue in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament.

“May have been our best game of the year,” said Golden Gophers coach Richard Pitino. “We’re playing obviously much better basketball. The beauty of this league is you learn something from every team that you play, and your players learn it. The physicality of that game, to be able to get stops when we needed to, finish at the basket when we needed to, make some crucial free throws, it was a huge win for our guys.”

The Golden Gophers, a team on the NCAA tournament bubble for much of the second half of the season, managed to beat the Boilermakers twice in the last 11 days.

Those two wins add some much-needed juice to Minnesota’s NCAA tournament resume since it has just one win against a current top-25 squad, a 59-52 win over Wisconsin on Jan. 3.

“I believe we’re going to make the NCAA Tournament again,” Pitino said. “It’s funny, and this is a true story, and this is the way it works. When you’re a coach this time of year, you look at bracketologists,” he said. “Jerry Palm and there’s Joe Lunardi are the two that we kind of look at. I did look at it on the bus over and I got nervous again. So, it just shows you as a coach you shouldn’t read any of that stuff.”

[Minnesota ended up getting into the NCAA tournament as No. 10 seed in the East Region, the team learned Sunday.]

Freshman Loyer hits four three-pointers to lead Spartans over Ohio State, Izzo wins 600th game

Michigan State freshman guard Foster Loyer warms up prior to the Big Ten championship game against Michigan at the United Center in Chicago. (Neel Madhavan/MEDILL)

March 15

About a year ago, Michigan State freshman guard Foster Loyer was dropping 40 points for Clarkston High School in the Michigan high school basketball state championship game. Now he’s helping the Spartans attempt to capture their first Big Ten tournament title since 2016.

Loyer has averaged just 1.4 points per game this season but started 4-4 from 3-point range and 5-5 overall from the floor in Michigan State’s 77-70 win over Ohio State in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament.

“I know I can play, I know I can shoot the ball,” Loyer said. “For me to go out there and get a three to go down, it was special for me. When that first one went through, it gave me a little bit of confidence. It was nice to see one go through the net. As soon as that happened, I felt good about my shot and I was going to keep looking for it.”

He finished with 14 points for the Spartans, second-most on the team, in just 18 minutes of action.

“Foster Loyer came in and made some big, big plays,” said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo. “I’ve watched Foster for three years do that. He averaged 40 in the state tournament. So that was good. He looked so smooth and comfortable [March 15] and definitely saved us in the first half.”

Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo gives game perspectives to the media after the Spartans’ win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten tournament semifinal at the United Center in Chicago. (Neel Madhavan/MEDILL)

Junior guard Cassius Winston was psyched by what he saw from his back-up, jumping up-and-down, celebrating each of Loyer’s threes while he was on the bench.

“You saw me — you know I was going crazy for him,” Winston said. “Like I said, I know what that feels like.”

Against the Buckeyes, Izzo won his 600th career game, further adding to the legendary coach’s already-long list of accomplishments.

“It means good things,” Izzo said. “You’re getting old, and you’re 600 shy of Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Boeheim. It keeps you humble, and it makes you realize you haven’t accomplished that much yet.”

Michigan State’s second leading scorer Nick Ward returned to the court for the first time since Feb. 17 when, according to The State News, he suffered a hairline fracture in his left hand.

In the second half, Winston drained a three while getting fouled, and followed it up with an alley-oop pass to freshman forward Aaron Henry for a dunk with about eight minutes left in the second half to put an end to a brief Buckeye-run and seal the deal for the Spartans.

Shorthanded Nebraska’s brief Cinderella run includes upset of No. 21 Maryland

March 14

Even with two of its guards playing 120 out of a possible 120 minutes through three games and the team shorthanded due to injuries and a suspension, Nebraska didn’t quit.

The Cornhuskers beat Rutgers 68-61 in the first round and upset No. 21 Maryland 69-61 in the second round, but ultimately couldn’t overcome Wisconsin in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament, falling 66-62.

Nebraska’s senior guards James Palmer and Glynn Watson Jr. each played the 120 minutes through three games, while junior forward Isaiah Roby played 116 out of the possible 120 minutes. The trio fought through fatigue and the grind of playing three games in three days.

Playing against Maryland, the Huskers were forced to utilize just a seven-man rotation and against Wisconsin decided to shrink that to just six.

“A lot of teams would just say, we’ve got seven guys, there’s no way, and they’d quit,” said Nebraska coach Tim Miles after the victory over Maryland.

Miles emphasized the play of some of the team’s more inexperienced players like guard Johnny Trueblood and forward Brady Heiman, and how they stepped up and were able to jell with the team’s core of Roby, Palmer and Watson Jr.

“Not every team is like that,” Miles said. “I think that says a lot about our young guys, and that’s really important. So, I think that is probably that mentality is the thing I’m most proud of.”

Both the Huskers and the Terrapins struggled to score early on, but once Nebraska got into a groove, the Huskers built a 13-point lead in the first half that set the tone for the rest of the game.

“It was definitely big,” Palmer said after the Maryland win. “We knew they were going to come out and make a run. I just know we were playing terrific defense and we were just ready to come to play.”

Palmer caught fire for 34 points against Rutgers, then followed that up with 24 points against Maryland, before finishing with 15 points against Wisconsin.

The Huskers just couldn’t get over the hump against the Badgers, despite hanging around for the entire game.

Pardon and Law bid farewell to Northwestern

March 13

After the United Center had cleared out and just the arena’s staff remained, Northwestern guard Vic Law walked out of the tunnel and onto the court, paused for a minute absorb his surroundings and walked back down the tunnel to join his family.

The emotions were palpable in the Wildcats’ locker room in the wake of their 74-69 overtime loss to No. 11 seed Illinois in the first round of the Big Ten tournament, especially for Law and fellow senior forward Dererk Pardon.

“A lot of emotions – it’s my last game, so just trying to take all that in,” Pardon said.

“There was a lot of crying in there,” said Northwestern coach Chris Collins. “I say it all the time – at the end of the day only one team is going to be crying tears of joy. There’s going to be one Big Ten champion, and then there’s going to be one NCAA champion. Everybody else at some point is going to have a locker room like we had tonight.

“The thing I love about being a coach is when you go into those locker rooms and you see the emotion pour out, you know how much the guys care. If they didn’t care, they wouldn’t be emotional. To see them share that emotion with each other, you know, and cry those tears, that’s when you know that you have the right kind of guys in terms of character.”

Law kept to himself, sitting in the Wildcats’ locker room with his Northwestern hoodie draped over his head. Widely regarded as the leader of this year’s team, Law was forced to miss the Illinois game due to a leg injury he suffered in the second half of the regular season finale against Purdue on March 9.

Law, Pardon and the rest of the Wildcats’ senior class have been an integral part of one of the most successful periods in Northwestern men’s basketball history.

Despite disappointing seasons that included last year’s 15-17 season and this year’s 13-19 campaign, in 2017 Law and Pardon helped lead the Wildcats to their first-ever NCAA tournament appearance, first NCAA tournament win and an appearance in the Big Ten tournament semifinals.

“They did a lot of things that people thought, quite frankly, could never be done at Northwestern,” Collins said. “That’s what I told them. Their legacy is not about what happened this year. It’s about the overall body of work and what those guys have meant to our program and their belief in us when there wasn’t a whole lot to believe in. I was just trying to sell a vision and a dream of what I thought Northwestern basketball could be.”

Pardon hopes the Wildcats can continue to build on the foundation that he, Law and the rest of the senior class has built.

“Never be satisfied,” he said. “You can never sit back and relax, you always have to put the work in, and the results will come.”

Nebraska coach Miles takes a tumble

March 13

Nebraska coach Tim Miles may have celebrated his team’s win a little too hard.

While running off the court, waving at and high-fiving Huskers fans in the wake of Nebraska’s 68-61 win over Rutgers in the first round of the Big Ten tournament, Miles took a dive to the floor after appearing to trip on something on the ground.

“For anybody that doesn’t know, I fell down waving at the crowd, running down the hallway when I was leaving,” Miles said. “I think it got caught on TV according to everybody that’s rubbing it in on me. So, yeah. I would say that’s a lot of exhilaration, but, yeah, just enough clumsiness to keep things interesting.”

“I’m fine. You know, I’ve just – the wires they jumped up and got me. I thought I was a better athlete than that. But I’m old, I’m old.”

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Photo at top: The 2019 Big Ten Conference tournament champion, Michigan State, poses with the championship trophy after defeating Michigan 65-60 at the United Center in Chicago. (Neel Madhavan/MEDILL)