EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP)—Michigan State coach Tom Izzo was on Paul Davis all week to be aggressive going to the basket and play big in the middle.
It looks like the senior center was listening.
Davis controlled the paint, scoring 27 points and grabbing nine rebounds to lead No. 25 Michigan State to a 74-65 victory over Wisconsin on Thursday night.
“You hate saying coach is always right, but there’s no question that changes my game and my mentality,” Davis said. “The biggest thing was to post strong and get to the foul line more often.”
In his next-to-last home game, Davis was 9-for-12 from the field and 9-for-10 at the line for Michigan State, which had lost two in a row and four of five to fall out of the race for the Big Ten title.
Maurice Ager had 19 points despite being in foul trouble for much of the game and Shannon Brown scored 18 for the Spartans (20-9, 8-7), who reached 20 wins for the seventh time in nine years.
“If you’re always going 11-0 or 12-0 in the preseason, you can get 20 wins easier,” Izzo said. “If you’re playing other people, it’s a lot more difficult to do that. I’m proud that we did it the hard way. When you do that, your kids get mentally tougher.”
Michigan State improved to 37-11 in games played in March over the last eight years. With a home win over Illinois on Saturday, the Spartans would lock up a first-round bye in next week’s Big Ten tournament.
“It’s just like being in the (NCAA) tournament now,” said Brown, who took three midterm exams Thursday, then drew praise from Izzo for his defense despite a case of leg cramps. “It feels like one-and-done time. And we have to play that way for 40 minutes.”
Alando Tucker scored 23 points but was the only player in double figures for the Badgers (19-9, 9-6), who had won four of the previous five and had faint hopes at a share of the league title. But those hopes were dashed on Thursday.
Badgers guard Kammron Taylor came into the game averaging 15 points, but scored just nine on 4-for-18 shooting.
Wisconsin led 23-13 midway through the first half before Michigan State got going. A 7-0 spurt late in the first half helped the Spartans go up 35-31 at the break.
Davis had 12 points and Brown had 10 in the first 20 minutes, when the Badgers were just 2-for-6 at the line.
Brown’s alley-oop slam and fadeaway 3-pointer jump-started a run early in the second half. The Spartans led 48-36 before Tucker, the Big Ten’s leading scorer, took charge with 19 second-half points.
But Tucker missed two free throws that would have cut the deficit to 59-57, and Ager answered with 12 points in a span of 2:22 before fouling out with 1:01 left.
“I felt I had to do something like that,” Ager said. “I sat out for a long time and had to make up for it somehow. I had to take over the game and help Paul out.”
Michigan State shot 58 percent in the second half and 51 percent for the game, improving to 13-1 when they shoot at least 50 percent.
“That’s the ball game right in there, that stretch from the 5-minute to the 2-minute mark,” Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. “We get a couple of free throws that don’t get in. It’s a couple-of-possession game there, and that’s where you’d like to keep it.”