EAST LANSING, Mich. — Having to face Wisconsin in its first game as the No. 1 team in the nation somehow put Michigan State's head coach at ease about his team's chances Tuesday night.
"We caught Wisconsin at the right time," Tom Izzo said following the Spartans' 64-55 win. "I've been there when you take over No. 1 and then we got beat by Indiana a couple days later."
Behind junior guard Drew Neitzel's game-high 28 points on 10-of-17 shooting, Michigan State muscled its way to the upset victory over No. 1 Wisconsin — the first time MSU has defeated the nation's top team since 1969 when Magic Johnson and the Spartans beat Larry Bird and the Indiana State Sycamores in the national championship game.
Michigan State (20-8 overall, 7-6 Big Ten) jumped out to an early 7-0 lead, but Wisconsin (26-3, 12-2) quickly stormed back and took its biggest lead of the game at 16-10 with 11:56 remaining in the first half when UW junior center Greg Stiemsma hit a jump shot.
The rest of the first half was a back-and-forth battle as there were six lead changes. Alando Tucker shouldered the scoring load in the first half for the Badgers, scoring 14 points on lights-out shooting — 5-of-8 from the field, 4-of-5 from 3-point range.
"In the first half, [Wisconsin] knocked shots down," Neitzel said. "[With] Tucker, our game plan was to make him beat us from the perimeter and he did that in the first half."
While Wisconsin headed into halftime with a 30-29 lead, rebounding was a concern for head coach Bo Ryan.
The Badgers were out-rebounded 19-10 in the first half. Things didn't get any better in the second half as the Spartans ended the game with a 41-24 advantage on the boards.
"There were times when we had a chance to grab [rebounds] and we didn't," Ryan said.
"I just thought some of our guys got kind of wooed into an area and couldn't rebound in space. … That hurts."
As bad as Michigan State's defensive plan on Tucker seemed in the first half, the Spartans stayed with their original strategy, and it paid off in the end.
Constantly being harassed by MSU's Travis Walton after Raymar Morgan got into foul trouble, the Spartans didn't allow Tucker to get to the rim, instead forcing the Badgers' Wooden Award candidate into some tough shots.
"We stuck with the game plan because we didn't think [Wisconsin] could beat us from out there," Izzo said. "Plus, we were in so much foul trouble that if we extended, Tucker was going to eat us on the inside.
"We stuck to it, and in the second half we started executing offensively."
After UW junior forward/center Brian Butch knocked down a jumper to give the Badgers a 49-45 lead with 7:08 left in the game, Neitzel ignited a Spartans' run to close out the game.
"Neitzel's the one who turned the game around, no question," Ryan said.
Neitzel knocked down three 3-pointers and a jumper as Michigan State went on a 17-2 run after Butch's basket and before Jason Bohannon made a lay-up with the Spartans' upset victory already in hand. The two points Wisconsin scored during the run were free throws by Kammron Taylor — his only two points of the game.
After Neitzel hit a running jumper to put the Spartans up by two during that stretch, he chucked up a 3-pointer on the very next possession that rattled in and out, kissed off the backboard and rolled back in for the score.
"That was crazy," Neitzel said of his miraculous shot. "I guess there was a little luck on our side tonight."
The 3-pointer gave Michigan State a 56-51 lead, forcing Wisconsin to call a time-out with 2:22 remaining. But as much as the Badgers tried to recover from the five-point deficit, Neitzel's hot shooting proved to be the dagger in the heart for UW.
"[Neitzel] was getting every shooter's bounce possible," Tucker said. "A whole bunch of his shots pretty much broke our backs during that stretch."