After a poised, patient performance that put Columbia within a few points of a massive upset, the Lions lost their bearings a bit in the final minutes.
Or maybe the upset-minded Ivy Leaguers were simply tricked by a creative Michigan State crowd.
Columbia committed two shot-clock violations in a row, and the second-ranked Spartans pulled away for a 62-53 victory Friday night.
The Lions were down two when they allowed the shot clock to run out on back-to-back possessions. They may have been thrown off by the fans in East Lansing, who were counting the seconds down falsely to make Columbia think it had more time than it did.
"They are the best-coached fans I've ever seen," Lions coach Kyle Smith said. "They duped us."
Adreian Payne scored 26 points for Michigan State. The Spartans (3-0) beat top-ranked Kentucky earlier in the week, and they'll have a chance to move to the top of next week's AP Top 25, but only after trailing for a majority of the second half against Columbia.
Maodo Lo had 12 points for Columbia (1-2), which went scoreless for the final 4:27.
"All credit to Columbia. They came out and played their heart out," Michigan State's Denzel Valentine said. "We need to come out with more energy and passion than we did today."
Michigan State scored the game's first nine points, but the Spartans trailed 26-22 at halftime and didn't lead again until Gary Harris' three-point play put Michigan State ahead 49-46 with 7:28 to go.
Columbia's Meiko Lyles made a 3-pointer with 6:08 to go to tie it at 51, and the Lions trailed 54-53 after a layup by Alex Rosenberg, but they didn't score again.
Down 55-53, Columbia committed those two shot clock violations. Still, the Lions had a chance to tie it with 1:47 to go, but Isaac Cohen missed the front end of a one-and-one. At the other end, Keith Appling drove into the teeth of the Columbia defense and lobbed an alley-oop to Payne that made it 57-53.
Michigan State hasn't been No. 1 in the AP poll since 2001, the year after the Spartans won the national championship.
"I'll just save you guys the embarrassment of writing stupid things," Michigan State coach Tim Izzo said. "We haven't proven enough to be considered a great team. We're a doggone good team with a long, long way to go."
The Spartans were obviously in danger of a letdown after beating Kentucky, but they appeared to avoid that when they opened the game on a 9-0 run.
But perhaps the game was a little too easy for Michigan State at the start. The Spartans ended up shooting 35 percent in the first half, and Columbia got comfortable quickly.
Rosenberg's layup capped a 9-0 run for the Lions that put them ahead 14-11, and Michigan State had a hard time shaking them after that.
Payne had 11 rebounds and shot 9 of 15 from the field. The Spartans attempted 30 free throws to Columbia's 11, but although they had some success inside in the second half, they finished 0 of 7 from 3-point range.
Michigan State also had only five offensive rebounds.
"Coach told us to respect everyone and fear no one," Lo said. "We knew Michigan State was a great team, but we stuck with them."
Harris scored 11 points and Valentine had 10.
Cohen and Rosenberg had 10 points each for the Lions.
"You play to win. We try to compete and win," Smith said. "But the moral victory is that we were competitive, and I expected that. Our guys bring a good effort."