With the score tied in the second half, Northwestern's Kale Abrahamson's 3-pointer rattled in and out.
Right now the Wildcats have almost no margin for error, and sure enough, the game slipped away after that.
Keith Appling scored 16 points and Gary Harris added 12 to lift No. 10 Michigan State to a 71-61 win over Northwestern on Sunday night. The Spartans were eliminated from Big Ten title contention early in their game when Indiana beat Michigan, and Michigan State struggled to put away the undermanned Wildcats.
Northwestern (13-18, 4-14) rallied from a 13-point first-half deficit, tying the game at 51 before the Spartans (24-7, 13-5) recovered.
Abrahamson scored 16 points for Northwestern, which has lost eight straight.
"I think if you're going to beat a team like that, you don't have to be perfect, but you have to play really well and knock down shots," Wildcats coach Bill Carmody said. "We had a good shot from Abrahamson that looked like it was down and popped out and then we had a drought. I thought the guys executed pretty well."
Michigan State senior Derrick Nix scored 10 points in his final home game. The Spartans shot 66 percent from the field and 6 of 10 from 3-point range.
Michigan State needed Michigan to beat Indiana for the Spartans to have any chance of sharing the Big Ten title. The Wolverines and Hoosiers were tied at 64 when Michigan State's game tipped off. Michigan inched ahead, and with fans in East Lansing glancing at hand-held devices, it appeared the Wolverines might get a rare ovation at the Breslin Center.
But Indiana rallied to stun Michigan 72-71, removing some of the meaning from Michigan State's regular-season finale. The rest of the first half seemed anti-climactic — the most interesting moment might have been when a small bird was spotted on the actual playing surface near midcourt for a few seconds.
"Sure, I would have liked to have another Big Ten championship, but I like getting them when I earn them," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "I don't need anybody else earning them for me."
Early in the second half, out-of-town scores were announced at Breslin, but Michigan-Indiana was left out. That drew a chuckle from some people in the crowd.
At that point, Northwestern had rallied to within five. It was 43-40 before Travis Trice and Adreian Payne made back-to-back 3-pointers to push the lead back to nine.
The Wildcats answered with an 11-2 run, tying it at 51 on two free throws by Reggie Hearn. Abrahamson could have given Northwestern the lead, but his shot from near the top of the key went in and out.
Harris put Michigan State back up by two. Alex Olah tied it again with a dunk, but Nix scored inside to give the Spartans the lead for good.
Nix was pulled with 1:03 remaining and his team up by nine. He kissed the Spartans' logo at midcourt and then left to a big ovation.
Northwestern, which is without Drew Crawford and Jared Swopshire because of injuries, finished 7 of 27 from 3-point range. The Wildcats will be seeded 11th in the Big Ten tournament. Michigan State will be the No. 3 seed.
"To beat that team, you have to be 12 for 27," Carmody said. "You can't be 7 for 27."
Northwestern can earn another shot at Michigan State by beating Iowa.
"We've got to get past Iowa first, but I'm down for a rematch," Abrahamson said. "For 36 minutes, we played them really well."