They passed the test with flying colors.
No.11 Michigan State defeated the No. 20 Wisconsin Badgers 65-59 at the Kohl Center, passing what was their litmus test for the season.
Basketball is very much a game of runs and this one was back and forth for most of it, but a crucial run in the waning minutes of the second half proved to be enough for Michigan State. After going on a three-game losing streak and losing Joshua Langford for the season, the Spartans proved that they still have something left in the tank.
Here are three key takeaways.
Nick Ward bests Ethan Happ
Coming into the game, this was clearly the biggest matchup. Ethan Happ is one of the best players in the country, if not the Big Ten, averaging 18.3 points with 10.5 rebounds and 5 assists per game.
Whether or not Ward could bother him was the question, as Ward had not been stellar in his last couple of games. Over the losing streak, he pulled down a total of 10 rebounds and was not as physical against opponents as head coach Tom Izzo needed him to be. He had a small bounce back against Minnesota, coming away with 21 points and nine rebounds, but he needed to prove himself against a talent like Happ.
In the game, Ward did more than just prove himself. Although Happ still filled it up from the floor, with 20 points, Ward made him work for it. It took Wisconsin’s redshirt senior forward 20 shots to get there, going 10-of-20 from the field.
The defensive pressure frustrated Happ and forced him into some very uncharacteristic turnovers, giving it away six times in the game, five of those coming in the second half.
Ward’s efforts on the defensive end were crucial to the Spartans’ success and he even added 12 points on the other end to help.
Kenny Goins shows up
I don’t think anyone thought Kenny Goins would be a key reason why the Spartans are succeeding so far this season, but here we are.
The former walk-on is having a big season for the Spartans, averaging 7 points and 8.9 rebounds per game while shooting 42 percent from the field and 32 percent from 3-point range. Those numbers have even gone up slightly in conference play, where he averages 8.1 points and 9 rebounds per game, with shooting splits of 43 and 34 percent.
Goins has now reached double digits in scoring six times this season with his 12-point performance against Wisconsin. The Spartans needed all of those 12 points as Ward become a non-factor offensively down the stretch. Ward picked up just three points in the second half and senior guard Matt McQuaid struggled overall, just three points on 1-of-6 shooting.
What was great about Goins’ performance was that he was 3-of-6 from 3-point range, if he can even just be a threat from beyond that adds another dimension to this Michigan State offense.
Happ vs. Michigan State
What clearly seemed to be the gameplan for Michigan State was to stay attached to the shooters of Wisconsin and make Ethan Happ beat them.
Happ had 20 points and on most nights that would be enough to boost the Badgers to a win, but no one else had enough to help him. Sophomore forward Nate Reuvers had 11 points, but just three in the second half.
The Spartans also shut down guards Brad Davison and D’Mitrik Trice. The duo had 11 points combined and went 4-of-18 from the field.
Both came in to the game as some of the hottest shooters in the conference, with Davison shooting 42 percent from the field and 41 percent from 3-point land, and Trice shooting 42 percent from the field and 44 percent from beyond.
Cutting off everyone else and letting Happ score, but making hin inefficient was a big part in Michigan State coming away with the victory.
Getting this win was a big boost for the Spartans, who are now back on the horse in the Big Ten at 11-3. With Michigan’s loss at Penn State last night, both teams are tied atop the conference standings. Michigan State will now get set to welcome Ohio State to the Breslin Center on Sunday. Tipoff is set for 1 p.m. ET and will be broadcasted on CBS as well as on-air over the WDBM airwaves.