No. 3 Spartans pass test against Southern Utah

Ryan Cole

EAST LANSING, Mich.—With a potential No. 1 ranking on the line thanks to this week’s Duke and Kansas losses, Michigan State men’s basketball looked like it might struggle enough to make voters think twice. But the Spartans’ young stars once again powered a final push to emerge victorious.

After returning from their first true road game of the season, No. 3 Michigan State moved to 9-1 on the season in a 88-63 win over Southern Utah. While they were led by three 17-point performances, the Spartans took several punches, as their counterparts from the Big Sky proved to be more of a test than most expected. But the home team’s talent was too much for the visitors in the end.

Even as the Spartans got out to a hot 22-10 start, the Thunderbirds hung around with their three-point shooting. After hitting six three’s in the first half, the Thunderbirds’ halftime deficit was only 42-30. The Spartans’ lead was mostly due to its 7-for-10 rate from beyond the arc, led by three from Cassius Winston.

Towards the end of the half, Nick Ward found the ball in his hands beyond the arc with the shot clock running down. As the clock ticked to one, the sophomore big man rose up and nailed his first three-point attempt of the season, drawing a chuckle from his head coach.

“Everybody thinks I’m mad at Nick,” Izzo said, referencing Spartan fans’ reactions to his benching of Ward at Rutgers. “So I told him, ‘what the hell Nick, go ahead and shoot a three.’ Then it went in, so that was good.”

The second half saw the Spartans’ lead slashed all the way to five after a Jacob Calloway three with 12:25 left. After trading baskets, the lead was only seven for the Spartans with 8:48 left. But from then on, Izzo’s team went on a 25-7 run to close out the game and put any upset chances to rest. The Thunderbirds did not make one from outside after the Calloway shot, but they still hit 11 three’s on the game, although some appeared to be very well-defended.

“You know the one thing that’s been poor all year? Teams are shooting too good from the three against us,” Izzo said. “I think I got to take the blame for that.”

Winston continued his hot streak from outside, hitting 5-of-6 for the game. That pushed him over 60 percent from beyond the arc for the season, well ahead of the program-record 51 percent shot by Kirk Manns in the 1988-89 season.

“He is shooting with great confidence and getting it off quick,” Southern Utah coach Todd Simon said. “He is a game changer for them when he is playing like that.”

Izzo has gone with the combination of Winston and fellow point guard Tum Tum Nairn on the floor more often recently, which has played a major role in the showing of Winston’s shooting ability.

“[Nairn] is [Winston’s] biggest cheerleader,” Izzo said. “It was his calls that got Cassius the ball. And I said, sometimes it works to play those two together because Cash is a very good two guard, too, and he is shooting the lights out.”

Ward bounced back in a big way from his benching at Rutgers on Tuesday. His 17 points on 6-of-10 shooting showed up on the stat sheet, but his defense showed improvement as well.

“Today Nick did what a great player should do, he responded,” Izzo said. “When he came out, ‘Coach, that was my fault on the free throws.’ Like the jerk I am, I said, ‘Now you know what Nick, I agree it was, now you have to work a little harder.’ But Nick was locked in early.”

The Spartans had two players achieve double-doubles for the second time this season: Jaren Jackson, Jr. (17 points, 13 rebounds) and Miles Bridges (17 points, 11 rebounds). Bridges also shared the ball well, tying a career-high with six assists from the wing.

“I told D.J. (Stephens) on the bench with ten minutes left to go in the game that I thought this was Miles’ best game,” Izzo said. “He got some offensive rebounds. Defense was a lot better. Starting to see the real Miles now, and that… that is exciting.”

With finals week approaching, the Spartans will not play until next Saturday when they travel to Detroit for a neutral-site game against Oakland. Tipoff at the new Little Caesar’s Arena is scheduled for 2:30 p.m.