EAST LANSING, Mich. -- In the final moments of No. 11 Michigan State’s 74-65 win over No. 7 Maryland on Saturday, a game that snapped MSU’s three-game losing streak and made men and women adorned in neon green smile, Matt Costello jogged to the sideline and wrapped his arms around coach Tom Izzo.
That bro-hug quickly morphed into a roller-coaster ride for the longtime Michigan State coach, who spun 360 degrees as Costello twirled and howled after a victory that stopped a free fall and reminded us who these Spartans were before Big Ten play and who they could be in the future.
They responded when they had to.
“I could use a ride once in a while,” Izzo said after the game. “It’s not all bad. It’s not all bad.”
Added Costello: “Just letting a lot of emotions out. Probably looking back on it now, it’s gonna be a little awkward, but in the time, it was perfect.”
After the game, Costello admitted he couldn’t feel the right ankle he sprained in a loss to Nebraska. “Numb,” he said. But that didn’t stop the senior from recording 15 points, 12 rebounds, 3 blocks -- including one nasty swat on Rasheed Sulaimon with 17.4 seconds to play -- and 2 steals. He didn’t practice after the Nebraska loss and limped through the pregame walk-through Saturday.
But Michigan State needed him.
Bryn Forbes entered the game on a 5-for-22 slump. He’d struggled in those three losses, but with Michigan State fighting to avoid its first four-game losing streak since 2006-07, the veteran led all scorers with 25 points on 8-for-15 shooting.
The Spartans needed him, and this win.
Denzel Valentine nearly recorded a triple-double.
Michigan State needed its national player of the year candidate to lead a program facing a rare sense of desperation.
“We went back to our roots,” said Valentine, who finished with 19 points, 14 rebounds and 8 assists. “That’s what we were winning with at first. Playing tough, running in transition, wearing the other team down, being smart at the end of games, coming up with big-time plays at the end. You know, all those things. It was a must-win. We were determined. We refused to lose that game.”
Through Friday, top-five teams in the Associated Press polls had lost 19 games, a record for that period. Twelve of those losses arrived in matchups against unranked teams.
The ebbs and flows of the 2015-16 campaign should not lead to panic, since it’s difficult to identify a team that’s not reaching for a life raft right now. A lack of chaos would seem odd.
Which teams do you trust right now?
That’s a hard question.
Which teams do you doubt right now?
That’s a long list.
Michigan State entered that crowded domain of uncertainty during a three-game losing streak that transformed the Spartans from a team to chase in the Big Ten to a team that’s trying to catch the rest. They gave up 1.15 points per possession in losses to Iowa, Wisconsin and Nebraska. Against Wisconsin and Nebraska, they failed to finish key plays and suffered a pair of one-point losses. They committed 62 fouls in the three losses and their opponents recorded a combined 66 free throws.
On Saturday, they faced a Maryland team with Big Ten title hopes and Final Four talent. The Terrapins entered the matchup as the only squad in the league with five guys averaging double figures.
But Michigan State bullied Mark Turgeon’s program, a team that has won most of its matchups decided by single digits since last season but has also lost seven road games (10 losses total since 2014-15) during that stretch. Michigan State’s 46-36 rebounding edge (17 offensive boards) and the worst performance by potential lottery pick Diamond Stone (six points, 1-for-3 shooting) in nearly two months all factored into the win.
The Spartans played with a determination that helped them snap a significant losing streak but also reinserted the program into the same convoluted mix that 30 or more solid teams are wading through right now. They aren't a great team, but, as the Maryland victory proved, they have the potential to compete with the best in the country.
We all knew that when they were slotted as the No. 1 team after wins over Kansas, Providence and Louisville. We doubted that when they started 3-4 in Big Ten play. And now, it’s clear they could return to who they were, and maybe more.
But they’ve been a team in flux just like the rest.
Saturday’s win, however, showcased the ceiling of a program that took the first step toward shaking that murky chapter. And the Spartans did that with Costello hobbling on one ankle, Lourawls Nairn missing his third consecutive game and Valentine still catching his breath after missing four games following knee surgery.
“He’s back 95 percent healthy, but I don’t think he’s back 95 percent windwise,” Izzo said of Valentine. “Seniors are supposed to come through. That shows a little bit of character that those seniors, that they still want to do something special this season.”
On Saturday evening, Izzo planned to host a party for some of his former players, supporters and alumni at his home. He seemed excited.
Steve Smith had flown into town. Mateen Cleaves would be there. Izzo had invited team managers and a couple who bumped into him in the corridor outside the team’s locker room.
The buzz was so big that Draymond Green was jealous he couldn’t attend, Izzo said.
“Day-Day says, ‘Call me from the party, Coach,’” Izzo said, “‘because we’re off tonight and I’ll be sitting at home.’”
For the first time in a few weeks, Izzo will have something good to tell him.