Nik Stauskas couldn't resist one final jab at his team's biggest rival.
As he jogged off the floor following Michigan's 80-75 road victory at Michigan State on Saturday night, the sophomore guard theatrically blew kisses in the direction of the Spartans student section.
It's probably not the wisest decision for Stauskas to taunt an opponent Michigan will see again in less than a month, but if ever there were a victory worthy of extra celebration, this was probably it. Stauskas and freshman guard Derrick Walton Jr. both scored 19 points and fellow guard Caris Levert had 17 as the Wolverines stormed back from an eight-point second-half deficit to win their third straight game against a top 10 opponent and seize first place in the Big Ten.
When preseason All-American Mitch McGary announced last month he was undergoing season-ending back surgery, many questioned whether Michigan would even make the NCAA tournament this March. The Wolverines (15-4, 7-0) have since won nine straight to move two or more games clear of every Big Ten team besides second-place Michigan State, a stretch that includes victories over Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Stanford and now the Spartans.
It's worth noting that Michigan State didn't have two of its top players Saturday night as Adreian Payne missed his fifth straight game with a right foot injury and Branden Dawson sat out with a broken left hand. Gary Harris kept the Spartans out in front most of the game, scoring 27 points on 9 of 15 shooting, burying four threes and playing aggressive defense on Stauskas to deny him the ball as much as possible.
Harris' performance seemed like it would carry injury-plagued Michigan State (18-2, 7-1) to yet another shorthanded victory, but eventually Michigan's bevy of talented guards brought the Wolverines back.
Levert had a game-tying 3-pointer with 7:45 remaining to cap a 12-4 run after Michigan State had opened an eight-point lead minutes earlier. Stauskas then launched Michigan's game-sealing 8-0 run with a go-ahead 3-pointer with 3:12 remaining.
It had to be disappointing for Michigan State to lose to its biggest rival at home, but this loss shouldn't alter the perception of the Spartans. Despite the absence of their two top forwards and a sub-par 3 of 11 shooting night from standout point guard Keith Appling, the Spartans still almost beat a team that has emerged as their biggest competition to win the Big Ten.
Don't let Michigan State's injuries diminish the significance, however, of Michigan going to the Breslin Center and leaving with a win.
It was encouraging for Michigan when it won at Minnesota to open Big Ten play. It was eye-opening when the Wolverines followed that up with a rare victory at Wisconsin a few weeks later. And now that Michigan is 7-0 in the Big Ten with victories over the four teams closest to them in the standings, it's impossible not to take the Wolverines seriously as a league title contender.