EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Keith Appling had 16 points and freshman Gary Harris added 12 as Michigan State fought off pesky Northwestern for a 71-61 victory at Breslin Center on Sunday in both teams' final game before the Big Ten tournament.
Adreian Payne chipped in 11 points and Derrick Nix supplied 10 points and a career-high-tying six assists. The No. 12 Spartans (24-7 overall, 13-5 Big Ten) were denied a chance to share the Big Ten title earlier in the day when archrival Michigan lost to Indiana.
The Hoosiers won the championship outright. The Spartans will have the No. 3 seed in the conference tournament this weekend.
Michigan State had played four straight ranked opponents before seemingly getting a breather against Northwestern (13-18, 4-14), which has lost eight straight games. But the Spartans didn't take the lead for keeps until 5:15 remained.
Freshman Kale Abrahamson led the Wildcats with a career-high 16 points.
The Spartans appeared to be taking control when Travis Trice and Payne hit back-to-back 3-pointers to make it 49-40. But Northwestern responded with an 11-2 run. Alex Marcotuillo hit a 3-pointer to cut the deficit to six, and Tre Demps followed with a fall away jumper and layup. Reggie Hearn tied it with 7:16 remaining on a pair of free throws.
Nix gave his team the lead back at 55-53 with a layup, and Branden Dawson's free throws bumped the advantage to four.
Appling soon put the finishing touches on the victory by slicing through the lane for a two-handed dunk.
Nix dominated inside in the early going as the Spartans grabbed a 33-26 halftime lead. He had six points, but his interior passing was more impressive. He dished out three of Michigan State's 11 first-half assists and helped it rack up 24 points in the paint.
Nix set up a Dawson layup midway through the half for a 15-7 Spartans lead, and Dawson followed with a dunk. A baseline reverse layup by Nix and a Harris 3-pointer gave Michigan State its biggest lead at 22-9 with 7:18 remaining.
Later, Nix split a double team for a layup and found Alex Gauna for another layup to make it 33-21. But the Wildcats hung around and gained some confidence by scoring the last five points of the half, including a Tre Demps 3-pointer.
NOTES: Northwestern enters the Big Ten tournament with the No. 11 seed and will face sixth-seeded Iowa in the opening round on Thursday night in Chicago. ... The Wildcats have lost four players to season-ending injuries and another due to violations of team policy. ... Nix, the Spartans' lone senior, was honored in a postgame ceremony. ... Michigan State had won 23 of the last 26 meetings but lost at Northwestern 81-74 last season. The Spartans had played 30 Big Ten games before facing the Wildcats again on Sunday. ... Michigan State has won 34 of its last 36 games at Breslin.