EAST LANSING, Mich.–Living on the bubble means every game for the rest of the year is huge for Michigan State. Luckily for the Spartans, Alvin Ellis III made sure the Spartans stayed afloat in their NCAA tournament hopes.
The Spartans defeated Ohio State 74-66 at the Breslin Center Tuesday night, avenging their 72-67 loss to the Buckeyes in Columbus on Jan. 15 and avoiding a hit to their less-than-stellar tournament resume.
Ellis, who has averaged six points per game in 16.6 minutes per game, led the charge from the start. The senior started out 5-for-5 from three-point range in the first nine minutes of the contest. He finished with 18 points to lead the Spartans.
“After the first one went in, I was just going to keep shooting it until I missed,” the Matteson, Ill. native said. “My teammates did a great job of finding me in transition. It’s really fun. When things are falling like that, you can’t do anything but have fun out there. Everybody is all hyped up and the crowd gets into it. There’s nothing like it.”
The Spartans (16-10 overall, 8-5 B1G) also got 17 points and 11 rebounds from freshman star Miles Bridges, who started cold in the first half but came on in the end. The other freshman big man, Nick Ward, finished with a relatively quiet 15 points.
“This last two weeks, week-and-a-half, he’s really taken a big step up,” MSU coach Tom Izzo said of Ward. “I’m afraid to give him too much credit, but I really do. He has to learn how to kick it out a little better, posting up deeper and harder, he’s doing a better job on the ball screens. He’s just a lot more focused.
The Buckeyes (15-12 overall, 5-9 B1G) were fighting for their NCAA tournament lives, which have been just about extinguished. Marc Loving scored 22 for the visitors, but foul trouble cost them minutes from two of their top scorers, Jae’Sean Tate and Trevor Thompson. JaQuan Lyle (10 points) was the only other Buckeye to finish in double digits, just after missing a number of days with the team due to a family emergency.
“We couldn’t get over the hump. We couldn’t make the plays,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. “The foul trouble got us, especially in the first half. But we just couldn’t make the plays. We got the shots we wanted, they wouldn’t go down for us. I give them credit. They made some big-time plays.”
After garnering the lead thanks to Ellis’s sharpshooting, the Spartans remained consistent most of the rest of the game. They only trailed for 42 seconds, and they regained the lead for good with 5:54 left in the first half.
From there, the Spartans’ relatively comfortable lead was held thanks to a much better second half from Bridges.
“I thought Miles had a very average game and I told him that after the game,” Izzo said. “What I really like though, is that when he gave up five points in a row, it was the first time in a while that it was a gut check for him. Like great players do, he rose to the occasion and that may be the best thing I got out of tonight.”
The game was not all roses and valentines for Izzo. The Spartans once again couldn’t put away an opponent after getting out to a double-digit lead. On several occasions, the Spartans gave up quick Buckeye points after extending their own lead to 10 or 12.
But timely monster plays swung momentum back in the home team’s favor throughout the night. The most notable of those plays was Joshua Langford’s putback dunk with 1:32 left, which quelled Ohio State’s final comeback attempt.
“I just wanted to go in and make a play,” Langford said of his first official collegiate dunk. “My coaches have been really getting into me about offensive rebounding, trying to get second chance touches for my teammates. I feel like I have the ability to be really good at that. So I was going in, just trying to make a play, and I was there at the rim so I just put it back in.”
Throughout the contest, Izzo was pleased with his team’s grit, an aspect of Michigan State’s program that has willed some of Izzo’s less talented teams to NCAA tournament runs.
“I just have to accept that we are a grinder team,” said Izzo, who is in his 22nd year at MSU. “Every time we have a big lead, nine points, 12 points, we just find a way to make us uncomfortable. But give us credit, we grinded it out. So, I guess we aren’t going to be pretty, but pretty doesn’t get you any wins anyway.”
This Saturday, the Spartans will travel to West Lafayette, Ind. for a big road game against No. 16 Purdue. They will look to avenge a 84-73 home loss to the Boilermakers in January.