Chris Solari, Detroit Free Press
Published 9:23 p.m. ET March 3, 2020 | Updated 10:22 p.m. ET March 3, 2020
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — They started early. They came often. One after another.
Michigan State basketball’s defense had no answer for No. 20 Penn State’s 3-point shooting. And the 17th-ranked Spartans’ chances for another Big Ten title appeared all but over as they were down at one point by 19.
Then came halftime. And a metamorphosis for MSU.
And one final shot at a third straight conference championship.
The Spartans smacked the Nittany Lions hard out of the chute offensively and defensively. Penn State stopped scoring. An Aaron Henry 3-pointer to open the second half, coincidentally enough, began a 24-3 run that gave them a lead they would not relinquish and a 79-71 victory at Bryce Jordan Center on Tuesday night.
Coupled with a second straight loss by Maryland, MSU suddenly is in a tie with the Terrapins for first place with one game remaining in the Big Ten regular season.
Xavier Tillman had a career-high 23 points with 15, Rocket Watts scored 18, Cassius Winston had 14 points and seven assists, and Henry added 12 points and eight boards in a physical comeback.
After making 10 3-pointers in the first half, the Nittany Lions didn’t have another in the second.
MSU held Penn State star forward Lamar Stevens to 3 of 19 shooting and 15 points on his senior night. Sophomore Myreon Jones led the Nittany Lions with 16 points, and senior Mike Watkins added 12 points and nine rebounds.
The Spartans (21-9, 13-6 Big Ten) have won four straight and five of six. They host No. 19 Ohio State on Sunday in the regular-season finale.
No. 9 Maryland lost 78-67 at Rutgers on Tuesday. The Terps (23-7, 13-6) host Michigan on Sunday in their finale.
PSU (21-9, 11-8) has lost four of five.
The Nittany Lions did to MSU what the Spartans did at Maryland on Saturday – jumped on them from the outset.
An alley-oop dunk by Watkins after the tip. A 3-pointer from Jamari Wheeler followed, with another by Seth Lundy capping a 10-2 start.
MSU pulled back within 12-11, however, with Tillman scoring seven of his 11 first-half points in a run that included a three-point play and a one-handed, put-back dunk off a Gabe Brown miss.
That would be as close as the Spartans would get. And the point when the Nittany Lions began to torch the twine.
Three 3-pointers in a 13-2 run forced MSU coach Tom Izzo to call timeout with 10:23 left and MSU trailing by 12. Back-to-back 3s from Lundy and Jones, then consecutive 3s from Myles Dread with about 5 minutes left before halftime made it a 19-point lead. Jones added one more with 35 seconds left before half, and Watkins’ tip of a lob pass just before the buzzer made it 46-31 at half.
The Nittany Lions were 10 of 17 from 3-point range and 5 of 20 on 2s in the first half.
MSU, meanwhile, struggled to score consistently. The Spartans were 1 of 9 from deep, with an 18-10 scoring edge in the paint all that kept them from being behind by more at the break.
Everything changed when the two teams switched sides.
Penn State went ice cold from beyond the arc, missing all 13 attempts in the half.
The Spartans couldn’t miss at the other end, making their first seven shots. Watts scored six straight after the Henry 3-pointer, a 9-0 burst to open the half. Then Henry had five in a row to ignite an 11-point run, with a driving Winston dish to Tillman for a layup giving the Spartans the lead during the burst.
MSU extended the lead to 65-55 on a Winston 3-pointer with 9:46 left – a 29-point swing from its lowest point in the first half – but Penn State didn’t go away easily.
The Nittany Lions went on an 11-3 rally, including consecutive buckets in the paint by John Harrar, to get within 68-66 with 4:57 remaining.
But the Spartans kept Penn State at bay, with two Tillman free throws and layup and a driving, jump-stop layup by Henry with 1:30 to play.
Then after replay reversed what appeared to be a critical turnover on Winston, the senior guard drove and got fouled by Wheeler with 53.1 seconds to play. That three-point play gave him and the Spartans one final chance at something special – another Big Ten crown.