I'm not sure if Michigan State realizes the importance of this series. For the Spartans, playing Bowling Green likely means teeing off against an overmatched MAC squad, and we did nothing to alter that perception last year after taking a six-point deficit into halftime and leaving the Breslin Center with a 35-point defeat. MSU is 10-3 all-time against BG, and have won each of the five matchups since 1993. No one in East Lansing circles the Bowling Green game on their calendar.
For Bowling Green, though, the Michigan State series is monumental. Two of our program's biggest wins have come against the Spartans. The first was Bowling Green's most recent road win over a top-25 team -- an 81-79 victory in the Breslin Center on December 18, 1989 that made the Falcons the first visiting team to taste victory at the now-iconic venue. The following year, fifth-ranked Michigan State traveled south to Bowling Green's now-retired Anderson Arena and were defeated 98-85 in what was arguably the most important home win in that venue's 51 years of existence. After the game, Spartans coach Jud Heathcoate predicted through gritted teeth "I think you've just seen the last time you'll ever see a Michigan State team in a MAC gymnasium." Fans in attendance that day still recall the game with a fondness generally reserved for the birth of children and winning the lottery. Despite current Spartans head coach Tom Izzo's willingness to play anyone anywhere (including MAC teams in MAC gymnasiums), Michigan State has never returned to Bowling Green.
But they will. Saturday's game was the second leg of a 2-for-1 series, and after the two East Lansing matchups, the Spartans will travel to BG next season for the first time in 22 years. Fans in town are already buzzing about the final chapter to this basketball trilogy, so much so that it's easy to forget that Saturday was only the second game.
This game, like last year's, was a December contest. December is a special month for the mid-major like Bowling Green. While November may involve the occasional early-season money game, December is when the coach feels comfortable enough with his team to test them in a particularly inhospitable road environment like Michigan State. These games are when you learn a lot about your players -- who will rise to the challenge of facing a more skilled and athletic squad? Conversely, who will regress? As a fan, I particularly relish these games because they offer the chance to see something you hadn't considered, or possibly overlooked, or maybe even to witness something you had glimpsed only briefly reveal itself fully. Saturday was one of those nights.
Bowling Green came out determined to recapture some of that old magic and demonstrate that last year's collapse was a fluke. They played competitively in the first half, entering the locker room only down one. The shot at victory would die there. Thanks to a renewed vigor on the glass, the second half saw Michigan State runs of 11-0 and 9-0 in the early going, putting the game out of reach from there on out. However, at no point did the Falcons let the game truly slip away. MSU's largest lead was 17 points and the Bowling Green freshmen, featuring previously unheralded Jehvon Clarke, stepped up to keep the Falcons within a respectable distance the entire game.
Clarke had played only 31 total minutes prior to Saturday, appearing in just five of the team's nine games. And he only needed 12 minutes to make an impression in East Lansing. I had previously seen him in action at Midnight Madness and came away thinking that, if given the chance to shine, he might make the most of it. His 14 points, 3 assists, and 2 steals off the bench were a revelation for a team that often does everything right except put the ball in the basket.
December road tests against old "rivals" can reveal a lot about your team, and they uncovered a lot about the Falcons Saturday night. The best part is watching the answers make way for new questions. How many minutes will Clarke get next game? Can he crack the crowded rotation and make a difference on the court? I only know one thing -- I can't wait to see how this one ends.
at MICHIGAN STATE 74, BOWLING GREEN 60 12/17/2011
BOWLING GREEN 5-5 (0-0) -- T. Oglesby 4-4 0-0 8; A. Calhoun 6-14 0-0 12; J. Crawford 4-10 1-2 11; S. Thomas 3-10 0-0 7; L. Kraus 0-5 0-0 0; D. Brown 0-7 0-0 0; C. Orr 1-2 0-0 2; J. Clarke 4-5 5-5 14; C. Sealey 1-2 2-3 4; C. Black 0-1 0-0 0; A. Henderson 1-3 0-0 2; J. Erger 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 24-64 8-10 60. MICHIGAN STATE 9-2 (0-0) -- D. Green 4-10 4-5 12; B. Wood 5-8 3-3 16; B. Dawson 5-6 3-4 13; K. Appling 1-4 1-2 3; T. Trice 1-4 0-0 3; D. Nix 5-13 4-6 14; A. Payne 2-5 2-5 6; A. Thornton 1-1 2-2 5; R. Byrd 1-2 0-0 2; B. Kearney 0-0 0-0 0; A. Gauna 0-0 0-0 0; A. Ianni 0-0 0-0 0; D. Chapman 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 25-53 19-27 74.
Three-point goals: BGSU 4-16 (S. Thomas 1-4; A. Calhoun 0-2; J. Crawford 2-3; L. Kraus 0-2; D. Brown 0-2; A. Henderson 0-1; J. Clarke 1-2), MSU 5-11 (A. Thornton 1-1; B. Wood 3-5; D. Green 0-2; K. Appling 0-1; T. Trice 1-2); Rebounds: BGSU 31 (T. Oglesby 9), MSU 34 (D. Green 10); Assists: BGSU 10 (J. Crawford 3), MSU 16 (D. Green 6); Total Fouls -- BGSU 21, MSU 16; Fouled Out: BGSU-None; MSU-None.