The No. 2 Michigan State men’s basketball team looked all but defeated at halftime on Saturday afternoon in front of what may have been close to a pro-MSU crowd at Allstate Arena in Rosemont, IL. After one of their worst-played halves in recent memory, the Spartans found themselves down 49-27 after 20 minutes to a Northwestern team that had lost three of its last five games.
It was the fourth time in the last seven games the Spartans found themselves trailing at the break, but after a monstrous second-half comeback led by sophomore guard Cassius Winston, the bench and a much more tenacious defense, Michigan State earned their 10th straight win with a 65-60 victory over Northwestern.
The Wildcats’ 22-point halftime lead wasn’t even their biggest of the afternoon, at one point the Spartans fell down as much as 27 in a first half that consisted of sluggish play, turnovers, poor defense and mostly Northwestern three-pointers.
In the first half Northwestern shot the lights out. The Wildcats went 8-for-12 from behind the arc and shot 60% from the field. Along with the shooting, Northwestern had a 12:1 assist to turnover ratio, and held Michigan State to 33.3% shooting from the field.
Michigan State’s first half was the exact opposite. Northwestern rolled out a match-up zone defense and for much of the first 20 minutes, the Spartans had no answer. Michigan State was missing shots, giving up offensive rebounds, second and third chance points, and were just flat out getting beat in every aspect of the game.
Then the second half came along and the script was flipped.
Jaren Jackson Jr., who finished with 11 points in 14 minutes, got the ball rolling for Michigan State with three straight baskets early in the half. The freshman forward, who struggled in the first 20 minutes, came out aggressively and began to set the tone for the Spartans.
Michigan State came out in the second half looking like a completely different team. They pressed out on Northwestern to take away the three, and when the Wildcats drove, the Spartan bigs met them at the rim.
The Spartans showed a sense of urgency, they began to hustle, bodies were on the floor and they began to get out and run.
After a Josh Langford three-pointer cut the Wildcats’ lead to 15 with 13:22 left in the second half, the Spartans didn’t look back.
Over the final 12 minutes, Cassius Winston scored 13 points, hit three 3-pointers, dished out two assists and grabbed five boards. Winston finished with 17 points, 7 assists and 9 rebounds for the game, and played great defense down the stretch, which was highlighted by coach Tom Izzo postgame.
“Over the last month he’s (Winston) grown a lot and it’s been a good thing…I’m proud of him. He’s much better defensively than he was earlier in the year,” said Izzo.
The Hall of Fame coach also praised Winston for the way he pushed the ball in the second half and led the offense. Izzo was also impressed by Winston’s nine rebounds.
What Izzo really believed was the key to the win however was Michigan State’s defense. He said at halftime he talked to the team about making adjustments, defending the three and that he got on the big men for not helping the guards and protecting the rim.
Izzo said he believed the defensive energy the Spartans brought in the second half led to transition offense and more baskets.
The Spartans’ defense was lock-down in the second half on Saturday. The Wildcats scored only 11 points in the final 20 minutes, going 3-of-26 (11%) from the field. The three-point shot didn’t fall like it did in the first half, as Northwestern went 1-of-11 in the second frame.
Michigan State’s 27-point comeback was the largest in Big Ten history and was highlighted by a 24-0 run, in which the Wildcats failed to score for over 11 and a half minutes.
“We needed that win,” Izzo said. “There can’t be a much better comeback than the one we just had.”
One Spartan who wasn’t on the floor for most of the comeback was Miles Bridges, who just a week ago was the hero in Michigan States’ 68-65 win over No. 3 Purdue. Bridges struggled in the first half only scoring two points and had to sit with three fouls early in the second.
Despite his limited action, Bridges made a clutch baseline jumper with 10 minutes left to cut Northwestern’s lead to five along with four clutch free throws in the final minute.
Although Bridges wasn’t the one leading the way on the court, Izzo said “he was as good in those huddles (during a timeout) as anybody.”
Michigan State has seemed to have quite a few games like this, where a different player steps up and leads the team to victory. Last Saturday it was Bridges, on Tuesday against Minnesota it was Jackson Jr., and on Saturday night it was Winston.
What stood out is when the Spartans went on their big second half run, the players on the court for a while were Winston, Langford, McQuaid, Tillman and Goins. And even down the stretch, with 2:30 left in a two-point game, Bridges and Jackson Jr. were on the bench, still cheering their teammates.
“Guys don’t care about who’s in the game, they care about winning. It’s refreshing,” Izzo said.
With the win the Spartans improve to 26-3 on the season and now hold sole possession of first place in the Big Ten with a record of 14-2.
Michigan State’s next game is on Tuesday night at 7 p.m. in East Lansing against Illinois. It’ll be senior night at the Breslin Center with the contest being the Spartans’ final home game before they wrap up the regular season at Wisconsin on Saturday, Feb. 25.