Michigan State Spartans guard Denzel Valentine (45) reacts after getting fouled by the Northwestern Wildcats during the first half at Welsh-Ryan Arena. (David Banks-USA TODAY Sports)
EVANSTON, Ill. (DETROIT FREE PRESS) - Nine of 12 did not stop Michigan State from making it 16 of 17.
As Tom Izzo chases whatever the record may be for different starting lineups in a season - tonight's was MSU's 10th overall and ninth in the past 12 games - his team continues to not lose games.
The No. 4 Spartans are 16-1 after a methodical 54-40 win over Northwestern at Welsh-Ryan Arena, matching the 1930-31 and 2000-01 teams for the best 17-game mark in school history.
And although senior forward Adreian Payne missed his second straight game with a right foot sprain and may still be out a while, MSU is staying atop the Big Ten race at 5-0, entering another road game Saturday against Illinois.
There's little exciting or visually pleasing about what Izzo's team is doing right now, but MSU's defense stepped up tonight with the long-range shooting taking a night off. The Spartans entered the game atop the Big Ten at 40% from three-point range and went 2-for-16 with rampant airballs against the Wildcats (8-10, 1-4).
Gary Harris was 0-for-6 but did enough elsewhere to lead MSU with 14 points. Keith Appling continued his sharp play with 11 points and four assists. Branden Dawson, a game-time decision because of an illness, came off the bench for defense, six points and a game-high 11 rebounds.
And junior forward Alex Gauna, whose role has been diminishing, matched his career high with eight points, all in the second half to help the Spartans pull away.
Tre Demps scored 12 points to lead Northwestern, which shot just 28.3% overall - including 5-for-23 from three.
MSU was sharp in the first couple minutes, jumping to a 7-2 lead, but hazy offense - decision making and execution - soon took over for the Spartans.
The Wildcats got back in waves and forced MSU to earn halfcourt points. Without Payne as an option in the post, the Spartans settled for a lot of jumpers - missing the rim entirely with five of them.
Despite all the "Airball!" chants in the arena and 1-for-11 three-point accuracy for MSU in the first half, the Spartans led, 26-22, at the break. Harris had eight points and Appling had six, though he was clutching his right shoulder in pain late in the first half.
He looked just fine after the break, though, and MSU gradually extended its lead by stifling Northwestern's offense.
Contact Joe Rexrode: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @joerexrode. Check out his MSU blog at freep.com/heyjoe.