A Cassius Winston buzzer beater from the edge of the Spartan helmet at half court summed up Michigan State’s sustained dominance on Thursday night and Nebraska’s inability to stop them in a 88-72 MSU win. The Spartans are now 17-11 (9-6) with three games remaining.
Every game is a must win at this point in the season for MSU as the dreaded 13 loss mark looms over their head. With games left against top Big Ten team Wisconsin and road games against an overachieving Maryland team and Illinois (who whomped Northwestern at home by 16), defeating a Cornhusker team that has been unable to string together a win streak this season was imperative.
“I’m not going to feel good until the end,” head coach Tom Izzo said after the game. “It’s just going to be one of those years. It’s not bad, but there’s nothing ever to feel comfortable with this team right now.”
MSU’s 16 point blowout, a game where they led by 24 at one point, was energized by a 16-5 run to end the second half. Nebraska, who outscored MSU in the second half, could never recover.
“I thought we were running pretty good, we rebounded pretty good in that stretch, when you rebound pretty good you can get your running game going,” Izzo said. We hit three, threes in that stretch (including the buzzer beater). It got out of hand pretty quick in that stretch.”
“Little things, Josh (Langford) getting on a loose ball or somebody making a big block and then we go down and make a play. You know all those little plays like that, that took us a while to learn, can start a 12-0 run like it’s nothing,” said Winston. “Games can change in a blink of a play.”
One little, or big play, was where Winston bypassed a layup after a steal and tossed it off the glass to Miles Bridges who finished in highlight reel fashion. The energy never died after that.
It was yet another game where the freshmen were in the driver’s seat. They accounted for almost three-fourths of the team’s points as Bridges and Nick Ward both had 20 points and Langford had a career high of 17 points. Meanwhile, Winston showed why Izzo says he’s a top tier passer with eight assists and no turnovers; bouncing back after having 14 TOs in the last four games. But Izzo still believes the young bunch needs to do more if the Spartans are to make the tournament.
“I do think they [the freshmen] responded, I just think they need to learn how to play both ends of the court,” Izzo said. “Nick and Miles have been fairly consistent. I thought Miles played good, I don’t think he played great. Only one rebound in the second half. I need him to be more impressive. I thought Nick missed some good shots early. Josh hit a couple of shots. But five of 12 he has some work to do.”
“Biggest thing (on defense) is communication,” said Langford. “We had a couple of plays out there where we miscommunicated, didn’t say anything at all. We just have to lock down and say ‘we’re not letting them score.’ Just like we focus on offense we need to focus on defense.”
But being able to sustain over the course of an entire game isn’t something we have seen Michigan State do. Against Nebraska, they showed they could play a full 40 minutes. This led to MSU being more aggressive on the glass, outscoring the Cornhuskers in the paint 42-28 and getting to the free throw line more often, the Spartans had 35 attempts, two shy of their season high.
Even with only three games remaining, Izzo points out his squad is still having trouble guarding the ball screen, fears the younger guys may be tired now that it is late in the season and what some of the offensive rotations will look like still. Tum Tum Nairn and Winston can be a combo to help supplement the loss of Harris, but that can prove to be an unfavorable matchup against some teams. He wished Matt McQuaid got it going and he didn’t like what he saw out of Alvin Ellis as a starter.
The true gut test comes against Wisconsin on Senior Night, Sunday at 4 p.m. MSU has yet to show they can hang with the big dogs this season, and a win over the Badgers could influence the rest of the season.