Saturday night, Michigan State faced a rare occurrence; a must-win basketball game in early January.
Following three-straight Big Ten losses, the Spartans fell way down in the polls/standings and will possibly be knocked out of the top-25 come Monday.
And another loss, especially when you consider the opponent, in Nebraska would certainly take MSU out of the running for its fourth consecutive regular season title.
First, Tom Izzo made a lineup change.
Earlier this week, he confirmed the Rocket Watts point guard experiment is on hold, and just before tipping off in Lincoln, fans learned freshman A.J. Hoggard was set to replace him.
Four minutes into his first career start, the Pennsylvania native didn't look out of place, as he dished an assist, hitting Thomas Kithier down low and getting MSU into its offense sooner.
Oh, and he added two blocks in the first half.
With the Spartans still searching for its rotation, Mady Sissoko checked in after Julius Marble picked up his second foul at the 14:30 minute mark.
He made his presence known defensively, showing his physicality in the post and swatting two shots, bumping Michigan State's total blocks to four (came into the game with three total in conference play).
MSU strung together some points in bunches heading into the locker room, ending the half on an 11-5 run, leading 40-33.
The Spartans heavily leaned on junior captain Aaron Henry, who scored 17 points on 6-of-10 shooting before intermission, while Joshua Langford and Gabe Brown added 11 more between the two of them.
It wasn't a glowing performance, but Michigan State cleaned a few things up and took a step in the right direction.
To start the second half, MSU seemed unstoppable, jumping out to a 14-point lead thanks to a big run beginning with Hoggard's layup.
But the Cornhuskers wouldn't go away.
Junior guard Teddy Allen nailed back-to-back three-pointers as part of an 8-0 run, cutting MSU's lead to single digits with 9:45 to go (64-58).
Though he wasn't the only one on fire, Henry scored a new career-high (27-points) while draining multiple shots from deep (three) after entering Pinnacle Bank Arena 4-of-23 on the season.
Eventually, MSU broke down Nebraska's zone backed by a corner three from Brown and a Watts runner, once again increasing their lead to 11.
Yet, the Spartans struggled to maintain its late surge, allowing the Cornhuskers to remain competitive and threaten the outcome with 1:11 left in regulation.
But it didn't amount to a win for Nebraska.
Michigan State's defense wasn't perfect, but the Spartans accomplished quite a bit that Izzo mentioned on New Year's Eve, including taking higher-percentage shots, being aggressive, and getting to the free-throw line – leading to an 84-77 victory.
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