Spartans struggle early, finish strong in rout of Savannah State


EAST LANSING, Mich.–When the polls are released Monday, the nation’s new No. 1 men’s basketball team will reside in East Lansing.

But for 15 minutes on Sunday, it looked as if Michigan State had its sights set too far ahead.

Michigan State, ranked No. 2 for the last three weeks, found itself only leading Savannah State 37-36 with 4:20 left in the first half. But they powered ahead of the visiting Tigers late in the half and didn’t look back in the second, outscoring the MEAC team 57-14 after the break to win 108-52 at the Breslin Center in their 13th straight win.

“That was a funny team to play. It was a hard team,” coach Tom Izzo said. “They shoot three’s from everywhere. They average 41, and today shot 42. They missed a lot of them but made them in that stretch, and that is why the game was a one- or two-point game with seven or eight minutes left in the half.

The first half saw the Spartans (14-1 overall) score the first seven points of the game before the Tigers (3-12 overall) did what they do best: shooting the three. The Tigers came in averaging the most three-point attempts per game in the country. They made 8-of-21 shots from long range in the first half, keeping them in the game. Meanwhile, the Spartans coughed up the ball for 12 first-half turnovers as they tried to match Savannah State’s run-and-gun offense.

“I have spent a lot of hours talking to them about learning how to play the game and not the team–good or bad–meaning Savannah State or Duke,” Izzo said. “You still can’t play the jersey, you have to play the game.”

But the Spartans closed the half with 10 straight points, ballooning a once-small lead to 51-38. After the half, the run continued with five straight points for MSU.

Three Spartans earned double-doubles on the game, the first time that has occurred since 2013. Miles Bridges scored 19 points and added a career-high 21 rebounds, the most for any Spartan since Greg Kelser in 1976. His 19 defensive rebounds set a new school record, previously held by Antonio Smith, another Flint native who was in town during the week practicing with the Spartans.

“I told Antonio to go run up and down against Miles and see if he can get a little bit of that toughness and beastly manner,” Izzo joked.

Nick Ward had 21 points to lead all scorers while tallying 10 rebounds. He shot a perfect 9-for-9 on the day and has made 32-of-34 shots from the field in his last four games.

Cassius Winston added 16 points of his own while dishing out a career-high 13 assists. Six Spartans scored in double figures for the second game in a row, as Matt McQuaid (14 points), Josh Langford (11 points) and Jaren Jackson (10 points) added to the scoring column.

“We’ve got a well-rounded, talented team,” Winston said. “We’ve got a lot of pieces and talented players. The fact that we all work together for each of us to get into double figures says a lot. It’s not one person stealing the show or taking control of the ball; we are moving it and letting everyone get involved.”

The Spartans scored the final 32 points in the game, blowing the doors open to close out the 2017 calendar year. They held the Tigers to 5-of-32 shooting after the half and 2-of-21 from long distance.

“I thought we played better the second half,” Izzo said. “Cassius went from rags to riches in the second half. Miles’ defense was as good as it has been. He finally got in there and rebounded like he is capable of rebounding.”

For the first time in program history, the Spartans topped 100 points in four straight games, after scoring 107 against Houston Baptist, 102 against Long Beach State and 111 against Cleveland State. They are the first team to accomplish that feat since VMI in the 2006-07 season.

“I’m a big fan of personal goals and team goals and program goals. I really am. I think kids need to be motivated for something all the time,” Izzo said. “It’s good to do something where you can, as I always say, leave your footprint in the sand.”

The Spartans will defend their new No. 1 ranking at home on Thursday against Maryland. The opener for the remainder of the Big Ten season tips off at 8 p.m.

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