STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — Tom Izzo thought his No. 16 Michigan State squad lacked toughness earlier this season.
To his pleasure, the Spartans played their grittiest game all year and gave themselves a chance to win what Izzo calls the most physical conference.
Xavier Tillman Sr. scored 23 points and had 15 rebounds to lead Michigan State over No. 20 Penn State 79-71 on Tuesday night. After No. 9 Maryland’s loss to Rutgers, the Terps and Spartans are tied for the top spot in the Big Ten with one game to go.
“If you take care of your own business, then you deserve to have something happen,” Izzo said. “Until we beat Iowa, Maryland and Penn State, we didn’t deserve it. We dug ourselves a hole.”
Rocket Watts added 18 points, Cassius Winston had 14 and Aaron Henry scored 12 for the Spartans (21-9, 13-6 Big Ten) who erased a 46-31 halftime deficit to win their fourth straight.
But they kept digging that hole beforehand.
The Spartans trailed by as many as 19 with 4:15 left in the first half, but scored the first nine points to start the second.
It sparked a dominant stretch of play in the paint for the Spartans who took their first lead of the game with 14:29 to play when Tillman dunked to make it 51-49.
Meanwhile, the Nittany Lions, who made 10 of 17 3-pointers in the first half, went 0-for-10 from long distance to start the second.
The Spartans continued to keep Penn State (21-9, 11-8) at bay from there and used a 14-6 run to take their biggest lead of the night, 65-55 with 9:41 left. John Harrar made back-to-back layups to pull Penn State within two with 4:56 to play, but the Nittany Lions wouldn’t get any closer.
Myreon Jones led Penn State with 16 points while Lamar Stevens had 15 and Mike Watkins had 12.
“It’s exciting to be on that level now and that can’t drop," Penn State coach Patrick Chambers said. "We’re a damn good team. We just haven’t played 40 minutes yet.
The Nittany Lions used a pair of first-half runs to take control early.
They opened with a 10-2 advantage that featured two high-amplitude, alley-oop dunks from Watkins and a pair of 3s from Jamari Wheeler and Seth Lundy.
Michigan State cut it to 12-11, but Penn State made seven 3-pointers over the next 7:47 as part of 29-11 run that made it 41-22 with 4:15 left.
The Spartans scored the next eight points before Jones added his fourth 3-pointer of the half and Watkins jammed in his third alley-oop dunk of the half to make it 46-31 at halftime.
While Penn State owned the perimeter in the first half, the Spartans took control of the paint in the second.
Michigan State dropped 44 points in the paint to Penn State’s 20.
TOUGH SENIOR NIGHT
Stevens, who made his program-record 134th career start, entered his final game inside the Bryce Jordan Center 39 points shy of Talor Battle’s all-time mark of 2,213.
After a pregame video lit up the arena with Stevens’ career highlights, all eyes zeroed in on No. 11. Each of his early behind-the-back or crossover dribbles seemed to elicit “oohs” and “aahs” from the 13,437 fans on hand, but they began to get restless as Stevens came up short on his first 10 shots.
He barely missed what would’ve been a monstrous one-handed, put-back dunk late in the first half, and shook his head in frustration after missing a free throw early in the second. As a quiet crowd started cheering him, Stevens made the next one and added 12 points the rest of the way.
Izzo heaped praise on Stevens after the game for his entire body of work.
“Stevens will never ever have a game like that again,” Izzo said. ”He just missed some shots, some good shots.”
THE BIG PICTURE
Michigan State: The Spartans’ looked like a completely different team in the second half to hold on to their current momentum. Their movement away from the ball kept Penn State’s athletic defense guessing and helped Michigan State avoid what could’ve been an embarrassing loss.
Penn State: A startling trend has shadowed the Nittany Lions for a few weeks now. They can’t hold onto a lead no matter how big. They needed a last-minute 3-pointer from Dread to win their last home game after leading by double-digits at halftime and had all the momentum in this one until they went into the locker room.
Michigan State: Hosts No. 19 Ohio State on Sunday.
Penn State: Visits Northwestern on Saturday.