Freshmen Lead Spartans to Close Victory Over Oral Roberts

EAST LANSING, Mich. — After a stiff challenge from Atlantic Sun member Oral Roberts, Michigan State squeaked by the Golden Eagles 80-76 on Saturday, powered by its heralded freshman class even while missing its biggest star.

Playing in its first game without freshman superstar Miles Bridges, Michigan State (5-4) struggled to create any separation with Oral Roberts (1-7) all game. A back-and-forth first half ended in a Cassius Winston floater to give the Spartans a 34-33 lead at the break. Winston’s 11 first-half points led the Spartans, who could not create on offense for most of the stanza.

In Bridges’ absence, his fellow freshmen picked up the slack. Nick Ward (24 points), Winston (15 points) and Josh Langford (nine points) each set career-highs in points scored.

“I thought Cassius had his best game,” coach Tom Izzo said. “I thought he ran the team better, he did some things better, guarded a little better. But there was no other freshman that played very well… We didn’t play hard enough and we didn’t play smart enough.”

Senior Eron Harris scored 12 points on 5-of-11 shooting, but Ward was the man of the day for the Spartans, who shot 44.4 percent on the day. He notched his first career double-double, grabbing 10 rebounds to go with his 24 points.

“I played okay, I need to make more free throws,” said Ward, who shot 8-for-14 from the charity stripe. “I need to make more good decisions too, but other than that I played hard.”

Still, Izzo was upset with the 6-foot-8 big man’s performance on the defensive side of the court, due in some part to his conditioning.

“I wasn’t pleased with Nick on the other end,” Izzo said. “But take that with a grain of salt, because Nick competed. When he got tired, he melts down, and that’s the reason we were only playing him 16-17 minutes a game. But, to his credit, he at least competed.”

Ward, who admitted that he was coming off a cold, also tallied three blocks and ran in transition seamlessly with Winston, his roommate.

“[Nick] wants to score,” Winston said. “He’s gonna do everything he can to get a basket, so he sprints the floor. You look at him, you think he can’t beat anybody down the court, but he’s always down there first, sprinting and posting hard, so it’s easy to find him.”

Winston played the best game of his young career just one day after having a casual two-hour talk with Izzo Friday night. The Hall of Fame coach said it was “the most fun I’ve had in six months.”

“He picked me up from my dorm,” Winston said. “We drove around, we just talked in the car about things and goals for my future, things I need to improve now and where I should be now and where I’m at. So all those things just really help put in perspective of things I need to do right now to accomplish my future goals.”

The Spartans’ bench also kept the team in the game. They outscored the Golden Eagles’ bench 56-0. The Spartans got points from eight players while the Golden Eagles only had five players score, led by Emmanuel Nzekwesi’s 21 points.

“We’re just gonna have to play better, just gonna have to keep working at it,” Izzo said. “(We’re) gonna be a grinding team right now for a couple weeks until we figure out how to play without [Bridges] for a while, number one, and figure out how to play a lot harder, number two.”

Michigan State continues its five-game homestand Tuesday against Youngstown State. Tipoff is scheduled for 7:00 PM ET.