For a while, the Spartans used that as a crutch to allow a struggling opponent to give it a difficult challenge. Eventually, the Spartans put their disappointment aside and put away pesky Northwestern 71-61 in their regular-season finale at Breslin Center on Sunday.
"It changed how I felt," said guard Keith Appling, who scored a team-high 16 points. "I still wanted to win the game but I kind of lost a little focus. But like Coach (Tom Izzo) always says, we can't depend on someone else to do something for us. We had an opportunity and it went out the window. But we kind of get a second chance to redeem ourselves in the Big Ten tournament."
Freshman Gary Harris had 12 points, Adreian Payne chipped in 11 points and Derrick Nix supplied 10 points and a career-high tying six assists for No. 12 Spartans (24-7 overall, 13-5 Big Ten), which has won two straight after a three-game slide.
The Spartans will have the No. 3 seed in the conference tournament this weekend. They have a first-round bye and could play the Wildcats again in the quarterfinals Friday if 11th-seeded Northwestern upsets No. 6 Iowa in the first round on Thursday.
It's not the spot the Spartans wanted to be in.
"We've got to take the blame for that ourselves," Nix said. "We take nothing from anybody around here. We've just go to try to get it back in the Big Ten tournament."
Michigan State had played four straight ranked opponents before seemingly getting a breather against Northwestern (13-18, 4-14). But the Spartans didn't take the lead for keeps until 5:16 remained. Freshman Kale Abrahamson led the Wildcats with 16 points and fellow freshmen Alex Marcotullio and Tre Demps added 11 apiece.
"We played pretty well tonight," Wildcats coach Bill Carmody said. "It's day to day and week to week because we have a lot of young guys out there but I'm very happy with our freshmen tonight. Coming into this place, they were aggressive and did a pretty nice job."
The Spartans appeared to be taking control when Travis Trice and Payne hit back-to-back 3-pointers to make it 49-40. But Northwestern responded with an 11-2 run. Marcotullio hit a 3-pointer to cut the deficit to six and Demps followed with a fall away jumper and layup. Reggie Hearn tied it with 7:16 remaining on a pair of free throws.
Nix gave his team the lead back at 55-53 with a layup and Branden Dawson free throws bumped the advantage to four. Appling soon put the finishing touches on the victory by slicing through the lane for a two-handed dunk.
"We put a crack in the door for Northwestern and to their credit, they did the job and we didn't," Izzo said. "You have to win tight games and when it really came down to it, we started to get the ball back inside and did some things we have to do. That's going to serve us well in the tournament."
Nix dominated inside from the early going as the Spartans grabbed a 33-26 halftime lead. He had six points but his interior passing was more impressive, as he dished out three of MSU's 11 first-half assists and helped it rack up 24 points in the paint.
Nix set up a Branden Dawson layup midway through the half for a 15-7 Spartans lead and Dawson followed with a dunk. A baseline reverse layup by Nix and a Harris 3-pointer gave Michigan State its biggest lead at 22-9 with 7:18 remaining.
Later, Nix split a double team for a layup and found Alex Gauna for another layup to make it 33-21 before the Wildcats closed the gap to seven by halftime.
"We were just trying to pick and choose when to double team Nix and he hurt us a few times," Carmody said. "We went to double team him and he found guys under the basket in the first half and then he threw it out to Trice once or twice. He's a big kid, he sees stuff and he's unselfish."
NOTES: The Wildcats have lost four players to season-ending injuries and another due to violations of team policy. ... Nix, the Spartans' lone senior, was honored in a postgame ceremony. ... Michigan State has won 24 of the last 27 meetings but lost at Northwestern 81-74 last season. The Spartans had played 30 Big Ten games before facing the Wildcats again on Sunday. ... Michigan State has won 34 of its last 36 games at Breslin. ... The Spartans shot a season-high 65.8 percent while holding the Wildcats to 42.9 percent shooting.