Big lead or game on the line, Michigan State needed one play or one player to succeed.
"We didn't have him," Spartans coach Tom Izzo said of his injured star, Mateen Cleaves.
Instead it was No. 20 Texas, which trailed by 15 points a minute before halftime, that made the big shots and the Cleaves-like plays in an 81-74 victory in the Puerto Rico Shootout championship game Saturday night.
Chris Mihm, hitting 3-pointers and three-point plays, helped carry the Longhorns back into the contention with 19 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks. And he did it with several Spartans on his back each time he touched the ball.
"I think they tried to physically wear us out in the first half," Mihm said. "But we knew we could come back if we just stayed with it. Our guards made so many big shots."
That's usually the area where Cleaves' excels. He dragged Michigan State to a Final Four last spring and the expectations were high for even more this season. Instead, he fractured his right foot and isn't expected back until January.
Those are a lot of clutch situations against upcoming opponents like North Carolina, Kansas, Arizona and Kentucky for Cleaves to miss.
"We are understanding a little bit more that we can't just not do the little things because of our situation," said Morris Peterson, Michigan State's other star hampered by three first-half fouls. "We can hang our heads, but we plan on coming out harder at practice."
Michigan State trailed 77-74 and had the ball with 34 seconds to go, but Muoneke stole a pass and kicked it ahead to Ivan Wagner for a clinching dunk to send Texas to its first 4-0 start in three seasons.
But it didn't look that way when the Spartans (3-1), behind Andre Hutson's 13 points, led 38-23 a minute before halftime.
Usually, with Cleaves in control, such leads are automatic. Without him, nothing this season is a sure thing.
The Spartans led South Carolina by 14 points Friday and barely escaped, 59-56. They let Texas do the same thing.
Chris Owens and Ivan Wagner converted three-point plays right before the half to shrink the lead to 38-31. "I think that was the big turning point," Izzo said.
Mihm's 3-pointer with 16:30 left made it 44-42 and his three-point play two minutes later had the Longhorns up 47-46.
Another 3-pointer by Mihm, the tournament's MVP, made it 57-52.
Cleaves, sitting next to the coaches on the bench, popped up on his black cast to guide his team. He waved his hands to call for defense, he yelled advice to Izzo and tried to rally his teammates. But he couldn't get in there and shut down Wagner, who had 17 points, including a long 3-pointer that put Texas ahead 73-68 with 2:02 left.
Peterson, hurt by three first-half fouls, hit back-to-back 3-pointers to draw Michigan State to 76-74 with 49 seconds remaining. But they could get no closer.
"I told the team before we came over here that if we keep winning games, that, yeah, maybe we could take the program to another level," said Barnes, who three seasons ago had Clemson ranked No. 2 in the country. "But it's not going to get any easier."
Peterson ended with 14 points. Hutson led the Spartans with 17.
Every Texas starter scored in double figures. William Clay scored 13 and Chris Owens 12.
The Longhorns had little trouble passing through the holiday tournament and marking themselves one of the country's power teams. After an easy 88-71 victory over Arizona State, Texas held on to defeat No. 18 DePaul and Quentin Richardson, 68-64.
Cleaves stood and watched Texas celebrate at the buzzer, slowly shaking his head. He's expected to return in January near the start of the Big Ten Conference schedule.
Peterson thinks the Spartans will adjust a lot sooner than that.
"We have to, we have to learn how to improve," he said. "We are doing it."
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