EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Branden Dawson was crumpled on the ground, clutching his surgically repaired left knee.
The Spartans -- and Dawson in particular -- held their breath early in the second half when the sophomore forward tumbled to the court in pain. He missed the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments last season after tearing the ACL in his left knee.
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"I was scared for a minute and said, `Not again,"' he said.
Nebraska's Ray Gallegos was called for a foul when he trailed Dawson on his layup attempt.
"He really didn't clip me," Dawson said. "When I planted, the knee buckled."
After Dawson was examined, he walked slowly off the court and later was able to jog back onto it.
"All of a sudden he came out running like Superman," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said.
Dawson was cleared to return much to the delight of the fans, who gave him a standing ovation with ear-to-ear grins.
"I think my smile was even bigger," Izzo said. "I was scared to death."
Dawson showed his knee was very healthy in the final seconds, soaring to slam an alley-oop pass from Keith Appling for the game's final basket.
Michigan State didn't have much else to cheer about until late in what was a closely contested game for much of the night.
"I have no idea why we looked so lethargic and why we missed so many shots," Izzo said. "I am very disappointed in the performance."
The Spartans (14-3, 3-1 Big Ten) have won three straight and kept the Cornhuskers (9-8, 0-4) from winning their first conference game this season.
Nebraska, which lost its two previous Big Ten road games to Michigan and Ohio State by an average of 20-plus points, was very competitive for much of the game at Michigan State.
"We're not in it for any sort of consolation prize," first-year Cornhuskers coach Tim Miles said. "We want to win the game.
"Credit Michigan State, they made winning plays. We had a bad shot and two turnovers late that hurt us. We don't have enough things going our way to make errors late in the game."
Nebraska's David Rivers was put in the starting lineup and had 18 points -- two points from his career high -- in a breakout performance for a player averaging 5-plus points a game.
"I was more focused," he said. "I knew someone had to step up and it just happened to be me who made some shots."
Dylan Talley scored 17 points and Gallegos added 12 while Cornhuskers center Andre Almeida was held scoreless. The Huskers were without Brandon Ubel, who missed the game with an elbow injury. The 6-foot-10 senior is Nebraska's leading rebounder and third-leading scorer.
Spartans reserve center Adreian Payne scored 14 points, combining with Nix to score 31 points.
"Their big kids went 12 of 17 and our center was 0 for 4," Miles said. "We need Andre to match those guys if we're going to be successful."
Nix broke a 50-all tie with a layup with 6:17 left and Appling later connected on three free throws to give the Spartans a five-point lead, matching their largest to that time. After Nebraska pulled within a point, freshman Gary Harris responded with a 3-pointer -- after missing his first 10 shots -- that put Michigan State ahead 58-54 with 1:49 remaining during a 14-4 run.
Izzo, though, was not happy.
"They played harder than us, they coached better than us," Izzo said. "They probably deserved to win the game in every way."