EAST LANSING — Steve Smith was doing a celebration dance — the Cabbage Patch, I think — and Mike Peplowski was howling in a typical primal scream. And Mark Montgomery — the star of the game, if you ask me — was carrying the ball upcourt like a proud papa, smiling at the Spartan rooting section which was going ear-splitting mad. Jud Heathcote looked at the clock, saw less than a minute to go, and finally hooked his hands around his right knee and closed his eyes for just a second. As Shakespeare might have asked: Perchance to dream? This was, after all, a victory to build a dream on — the dream being that Michigan State would somehow get back to being what everyone expected them to be when this season started: a serious contender.
They may get there yet. But it won’t be the way you thought. These Spartans will never be a scoring machine. Forget that idea. It began to die, to be honest, in their very first practice last fall and was officially buried Thursday night, when they won their biggest game of the year by playing defense and keepaway. The Spartans held Ohio State, the No. 3 team in the nation, to 10 baskets in the second half; they swarmed around every inside pass; they poked; they pounded; they denied the Buckeyes even a chance to shoot; held them six minutes without a bucket; ran a Harlem Globetrotter weave that ate the clock.
It was the Super Bowl all over again; the New York Giants shortening the game; the Buffalo Bills on the sideline, starving for a chance to score.
And when the smoke cleared — lookie here, just like the Super Bowl — the turtle team won. The Spartans, whom most people had buried in a drift of disappointment, had slain the scarlet and gray dragon, something no other college basketball team had been able to do this season. “A great win for us,” Heathcote would admit.
A win to build a dream on? Going for all the marbles
“We put all our marbles into this one basket,” said Montgomery, after MSU upset Ohio State, 75-61, staying in the race for the Big Ten title. Of course, marbles had not been the problem. It was putting the basketball in the basket. Outside of Smith, who can basically shoot from his bedroom and still score, the rest of this MSU team had seemed, at times, allergic to the scoring category. It’s not that they’re bad shooters; they just didn’t seem to know when to shoot, where to shoot from. They were without a rhythm, like four guys sitting around a diner trying to decide what to order.
Not Thursday night. Here was Montgomery, coming to life, scoring a career-high 17 points, breaking the Buckeye press with deft dribbling and quick legs, then burying a little jumper here, a little jumper there. His point total was twice his normal average, which had to delight Smith, heretofore so predictable as the MSU offense that teams seemed to be telling all five defenders, “Sic ‘im — forget the other guys.”
“When we started the game, I heard the Ohio State guys go, ‘Stay with Steve, stay with Steve,’ ” Smith said. “But after Monty hit a few shots, it was like, ‘Stay with Mark! Stay with Mark!’ ”
What a pleasant change. The pair accounted for 43 points, and if Heathcote could get that kind of double threat every night, he might even stop slapping himself. Now if Matt Steigenga could become more of a force, and Peplowski could muscle for points as well as rebounds. . . .
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. Buckeyes bring out the magic
The most important thing was to win this game, because had the Spartans lost it, the next big sports news out of East Lansing would have been spring football practice. As it stands, MSU (6-3 in the Big Ten) still has a tough road. Indiana and the Buckeyes (7-1) are far ahead. But in college ball especially you look for these turnaround moments. “We want to build on this one, hopefully,” Heathcote said.
History will smile at their chances. After all, it was only last year that a 7-3 Spartan team beat Ohio State and went on to win all the rest of its Big Ten games and the conference title. And in the magical 1979 season, which nobody around here ever forgets, it was a 4-4 Spartan team that beat Ohio State in overtime and went on to win all the marbles, the national championship.
So Ohio State games are sort of a watermark, for whatever reason. And Thursday night, with the Breslin Center crowd screaming green and white murder — just once I would like to take the Pistons crowd up here and make them learn a lesson — the Spartans turned up the defense, turned up the weave, and turned out a win.
I should say this about Ohio State: If that was a 17-0 team, I’m a Scud missile. The Spartan defense was good, but it wasn’t that good. The Buckeyes took poor shots; many of them looked like darts thrown at a board. Their star player, Jim Jackson — whom their press notes describe as “an elite player” — looked awfully mortal to me. (He shot 5-for-17.) The Buckeyes made bad decisions, not the least of which was a technical on their coach, Randy Ayers, which led to seven unanswered MSU points at the end of the first half.
But hey. That’s not the Spartans’ problem. They have their hands full already. Thursday night was the first brick in their salvation, a win to build a dream on.
Now, who’s next?