East Lansing – Michigan coach John Beilein was uncertain whether junior center Moritz Wagner was even going to be able to play.
Two days ago at practice, Wagner tweaked his right ankle and aggravated the same injury that sidelined him for two games in late December.
Despite not being 100 percent, the ailment nor No. 4 Michigan State could slow down Wagner as he poured in a career-high 27 points to propel Michigan to an 82-72 upset victory and a second straight win in the series Saturday at the Breslin Center.
His previous career high was 26 points against Louisville in the second round of the NCAA Tournament last season.
“There's a lot of ways to win a game and we found it,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “I think we caught them in the second half on a bad night where some things for them weren't clicking. … The last two days we didn’t know if (Wagner) could go. So, he had a lot of courage to come in and play because he basically re-injured the same injury. But, he didn’t look like he was bad today.
“I think what we saw is he had bad games, he was just trying to do too much and he wasn’t doing what brought him there – shot fakes, driving the ball hard, he was loving only the 3, his defense was awful. And now I think he understands that’s not going work, and he did a really great job today. He had one terrible turnover, but other than that he was really basic and just really played the way we saw him play last February and March.”
The Spartans could do little to contain Wagner for the entire game, and his fade-away jumper with 3:50 to play was critical down the stretch. He was 8-for-13, including 3-for-4 from 3-point range, and 8-for-8 from the free-throw line.
Zavier Simpson added 16 points for Michigan (15-4, 4-2 Big Ten), which picked up its first win in East Lansing since 2014. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman added 14 points and Charles Matthews chipped in 10.
Jaren Jackson Jr. had 19 points and six blocks for Michigan State (16-3, 4-2 Big Ten), which has lost two of three and sits two games out of first place in the Big Ten. Miles Bridges added 19 points for the Spartans, who turned the ball over 18 times, leading to 26 Michigan points. Cassius Winston finished with 11 points.
After a back-and-forth first half, Michigan started to take control early in the second half and opened with an 8-2 run to take a 42-39 lead with 16:38 to play. Michigan State responded with the next five points but couldn’t extend the lead as Simpson scored on a drive to the hoop and Jon Teske scored off an offensive rebound to put the Wolverines up three with at the 13:43 mark.
A layup from Xavier Tillman cut the deficit to 48-47 on the next possession but Michigan got a three-point play from Wagner and another from Abdur-Rahkman to extend the lead to 54-49 with 9:49 to play.
The Spartans answered with a 6-0 spurt on a dunk from Bridges, a putback from Joshua Langford and two free throws from Jackson to go back on top, 55-54, with 8:24 left and send the Breslin Center crowd into a frenzy.
But Wagner stepped up and sucked the air out the building with a 3-pointer to jump-start an 11-2 run that helped put Michigan back in control, 66-57, with 5:50 to play.
“They slap the floor and everybody goes wild and you make a shot and they're quiet again; that was a lot of fun,” Wagner said. "But I made my free throws and it's like if I make my free throws ain't nobody going to stop me, but I feel that way all the time.
“It's not something that – I never doubt myself. I didn't do any special stuff, it just comes together like that and it was a good day. That's the beauty of this offense. People can step up and others can step up so it's not a one-man show.”
Jackson hit a 3-pointer then split a pair of free throws to cut it to 65-61, but Wagner answered with a fade-away jumper on the baseline and a layup on a behind-the-back dribble that made Nick Ward fall to give Michigan a 69-61 lead with 3:08 remaining.
Roughly two minutes later, Wagner added two free throws to give Michigan its first double-digit lead of the game at 75-65.
“He is just being dynamic,” Jackson said of Wagner. “He had a lot of counters for different types of defense. We didn’t cover some of the ball screens the right way, which left him open and got him going.”
Michigan State had chances to close the gap as Simpson missed four straight free throws, but the Spartans missed five of their last six shots and the Wolverines iced the game with five made free throws in the final 59 seconds.
“They didn’t do anything that surprised us,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “I just thought we did some things that surprised me with the turnovers. I didn’t think we turned it over like that and our point guards struggled today.
“It was a little bit like last year when we put our point guard and our center in a ball screen, it just wasn’t as good. Wagner played really well and made all his shots; he hasn’t been doing that. Give him credit, he made them. … He was the difference in the game.”