NOAH TRISTER, AP Sports Writer
ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — Jordan Morgan basked in the glow of his sixth victory over Michigan State in four seasons — an unthinkable total for so many Michigan players before him.
“It’s just competitive,” said Morgan, a senior forward. “I think when I got here, it was just expected that Michigan State was going to win. … Now, it’s going to be a fight, it’s going to be a battle, it’s going to come down to the end of the game. You’ve got big time players on both sides.”
Michigan has taken on its in-state rival with first place on the line twice this season — and both times, the Wolverines earned the Big Ten lead by outlasting Michigan State in the second half. On Sunday, it was Nik Stauskas and Caris LeVert leading the charge in a 79-70 victory that pushed Morgan’s record against the Spartans to 6-2.
Michigan moved up four spots to No. 16 in the AP poll Monday. Michigan State dropped five spots to No. 18.
The Big Ten title race often turns into a battle of attrition — and this year, Michigan is holding up just fine. The Wolverines lost Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. to the NBA after their 2013 Final Four run, and big man Mitch McGary has hardly played this season because of back issues. Glenn Robinson III has been healthy, but for all his flashes of brilliance, his shooting has regressed in 2013-14.
Still, Michigan (19-7, 11-3) has turned back challenge after challenge in conference play, and the most recent win over Michigan State (22-6, 11-4) enabled the Wolverines to take over first place again.
“It does not win us a championship, it doesn’t put us in position for it,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “What it does do right now is just put us in position to be in position.”
Stauskas scored 21 of his 25 points in the second half Sunday despite clearly drawing much of Michigan State’s defensive attention.
Then there’s LeVert, who averaged 2.3 points as a skinny freshman last season but is now showing he can take over games for extended stretches. LeVert and Stauskas — both 6-foot-6 — can shoot over smaller opponents from the perimeter, so on nights the Wolverines are having trouble executing, they can always hope for a big game from one of those two.
The Wolverines still have their problems at the defensive end — they’re not all that likely to grind out a win if their scorers are shut down for a night. But the problem for opponents is it’s hard to keep Michigan’s offense in check for a full 40 minutes. Against Wisconsin on Feb. 16, the Wolverines were held to 19 points in the first half. They scored 43 in the second, and although Michigan ended up losing, LeVert’s ability to shoot his team back into the game was impressive.
On Sunday, Michigan State jumped out to an 11-point lead in the first half, but LeVert scored 14 points before halftime for Michigan, including a 3-pointer in the final seconds that cut the deficit to two.
In the second half, LeVert and Stauskas scored all of Michigan’s points in a 21-4 run. The Spartans, who have always taken pride in their toughness, did not seem to have the energy to keep up. So a statistically strong game offensively went to waste for Michigan State.
“It’s been a strange year,” said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, whose team is still trying to fight through injuries. “It doesn’t get any stranger than to go to your rival, shoot 54 percent — 40 from the 3 — and lose.”
Now Michigan can win the Big Ten outright by sweeping its final four games — the Wolverines likely will be favored in all of them. They tied for the title in 2012 — their first league championship in the regular season since 1986.
“Michigan’s back in so many ways — just being competitive at every level,” Beilein said. “If you compete with Michigan State, then you’re competing with all the other top schools. We hadn’t been there for a while, and it’s just good to be in that position.”
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