Mateen Cleaves' shots were clanking. Michigan State was struggling. And just like a year ago, it appeared the top-seeded Spartans were headed for an early exit from the Big Ten tournament.
This time Cleaves collected himself and hit the shot that counted most - a floater with 37 seconds remaining that gave the Spartans an emotional 61-59 quarterfinal victory over scrappy Northwestern.
"They deserved to win the game and we won the game," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said after the second-ranked Spartans extended their winning streak to 16 games.
"We were outplayed. We were outhustled and that hasn't happened to us in two months. Sometimes they say you got to be lucky. I look back at my 16 years and I think of some games we deserved to win and we lost. So maybe it evens out."
The Spartans (27-4), aiming for a top seed in the NCAA tournament, will face No. 19 Wisconsin - the only team to beat them in the Big Ten this season and the last team to beat them way back on Jan. 6 - in Saturday's semifinals.
Cleaves, just 5-of-35 shooting in his two previous appearances at the United Center, including a quarterfinal loss to Minnesota last year when the Spartans were also the top seed, was 2-of-9 Friday when his clutch shot broke a 59-59 tie.
"Every game, all the shots are not going to go in," Cleaves said.
"I feel lucky a little bit. We've won games by larger margins, but the main thing is to win. I wasn't thinking about the last shot. I was just thinking of getting the ball on the rim and giving it a chance to go in," he said
"My job is to run the team. My job is not to lead the team in scoring."
Following two timeouts by Northwestern, Michigan State's Antonio Smith blocked a layup attempt by the Wildcats' David Newman. Fellow freshman Steve Lepore got the rebound and pu up a desperation shot that missed and Smith got the rebound as the clock ran out.
Northwestern (15-13) couldn't play much better.
Evan Eschmeyer, the 6-foot-11, sixth-year senior, scored 30 points for the Wildcats and their animated, profanity-spewing coach Kevin O'Neill, who ranted and raved throughout the game at both officials and his players.
"We played well enough to win," O'Neill said. "That's what Big Ten basketball is all about - crowded arenas, close games, kids playing hard, referees missing three-point plays on Eschmeyer over and over."
| Michigan State's Antonio Smith stuffs Northwestern's Aron Molnar. (AP)|
Northwestern, which lost to State by 17 earlier in the season, played tough defense and, for the most part, shut off the Spartans' running game. And they let Eschmeyer operate in the low block.
Now the Wildcats just hope to get a bid to the NIT.
"I just feel bad that we pissed away an NCAA bid and let it get away, with him still here," O'Neill said of Eschmeyer . "I really feel bad about that."
Northwestern led 59-56 and had the ball, but freshman Tavaras Hardy's jumper was way short with 1:53 to go. State then tied the game on Morris Peterson's 3-pointer with 1:42 left.
After Lepore missed a hurried jumper, Cleaves found a seam in the lane, drove through and floated up his go-ahead shot. He finished with just six points.
Andre Hutson scored 15 and Jason Klein 13 for the Spartans, who had a 17-4 advantage in offensive rebounds.
Newman, who kept Cleaves in check throughout the game, hit back-to-back 3-pointers to bring the Wildcats to a 49 tie with 7:25 left.
State took a five-point lead on a basket by Charlie Bell and two free throws by Klein, but Northwestern kept scrapping. Finally, Eschmeyer powered inside for two baskets and the Wildcats had their final lead at 59-56 with three minutes to go.
Northwestern trailed just 24-22 at the half by playing deliberately on offense and stopping the Spartans' running game.
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