Branden Dawson gave Michigan State a big scare. So did undermanned Nebraska. In the end Sunday, the 18th-ranked Spartans felt more relieved than satisfied.
Led by senior center Derrick Nix's 17 points, Michigan State pulled away from the Cornhuskers for a 66-56 victory at Breslin Center. Sixth man Adreian Payne had 14 points for the Spartans (14-3, 3-1 Big Ten), who have won nine of their last 10.
Dawson, a sophomore forward, scored 12 points, but the biggest cheer he received came midway through the second half when he returned from the locker room. Dawson, who suffered a season-ending left knee injury in the regular-season finale against Ohio State last year, crumpled to the floor while heading to the basket during a fast break with 14:01 remaining.
"I was scared to death that the kid did his knee in again," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "I felt for him lying there. I can't explain the emotions of that minute."
Dawson, the team's third-leading scorer, was able to walk back to the locker room, and he returned to play with 11:12 remaining after an examination.
"My knee kind of buckled, and my body went through a shock," he said. "I was just telling myself, 'Not again.' I had a flashback of what happened against Ohio State. I just planted the wrong way. But when I started walking, I knew it wasn't bad."
Michigan State's performance against Nebraska (9-8, 0-4) wasn't a good one in Izzo's estimation. The Spartans are now 11-0 at home, while the Cornhuskers lost their fourth game in a row.
"They played harder than us," Izzo said. "They coached better than us and probably deserved to win in every way."
Sophomore swingman David Rivers had 18 points on 8-for-8 shooting in his first career start for the Cornhuskers. Nebraska played without leading rebounder Brandon Ubel, who suffered an elbow fracture against Michigan on Wednesday, and junior guard Mike Peltz, who was declared out for the season Friday because of a knee injury.
Even with those handicaps, the Cornhuskers trailed by just one with two minutes remaining.
"We're not in it for any kind of consolation prize," first-year Nebraska coach Tim Miles said. "We want to win the game. Those kids in the locker room, their guts are turned inside out because of it. We had a bad shot and two turnovers late, and we don't have enough things going our way to make errors like that."
Michigan State freshman Gary Harris missed his first 10 shots, but his last attempt was pivotal. He hit a 3-pointer from the right wing to give the Spartans a 58-54 lead with 1:51 remaining. Nix and Harris then made free throws to close out the victory.
"They caught us in transition, and we had a bad matchup," Miles said of Harris' basket. "Benny (Parker) is a smaller guard on him, and (Harris) made a good shot. He's a clutch kid. He was a successful high school player, so it didn't surprise me that he made it."
Michigan State's perimeter players didn't make many shots. The Spartans' top four guards and wing players shot a combined 4-for-26, but inside players Nix, Payne and Dawson went a combined 18-for-22.
"We've got to get more out of our guards," Izzo said. "How can our bigs shoot 90 percent and our guards shoot 10 percent?"
Free throws were also crucial. Michigan State attempted 20 more than the Cornhuskers and had a 18-5 edge in made foul shots.
NOTES: Dylan Talley scored 17 points for Nebraska but shot 6-for-19 from the field. ... Michigan State leads the all-time series 11-6. Nebraska hasn't beaten the Spartans since Dec. 10, 1994. ... The Spartans have won 28 of their past 29 at Breslin Center. ... Michigan State held a 36-31 rebounding advantage, the 16th time in 17 games the Spartans have outrebounded their opponent. Michigan State began the day ranked No. 18 nationally with a plus-8.5 rebounding margin. ... Cornhuskers freshman forward Shavon Shields is the son of former Cornhuskers and Kansas City Chiefs offensive lineman Will Shields. ... Before Sunday, the Spartans were holding opponents to 57.8 points on 37.4 percent shooting, second best in the Big Ten in both categories. Nebraska shot 39.7 percent. ... The Cornhuskers play three of their next four at home, while the Spartans go on the road three of their next four games.