Spartans outlast scrappy Bulldogs in exhibition opener

EAST LANSING, Mich.–On a night that was supposed to be a coronation and a kickoff to a magical season, Michigan State’s men’s basketball team got all it could handle from an unlikely foe Thursday night.

The Spartans emerged victorious over Division II Ferris State 80-72 at the Breslin Center in the season’s first exhibition game, carried by two late Cassius Winston three-pointers that gave the preseason No. 2 team in the nation the final push it needed.

While the Bulldogs were certainly no slouches, finishing 28-5 one year ago and ranked No. 9 in the Division II preseason polls, the Spartans found themselves fighting for survival in the tipoff to their season. Tom Izzo’s team took a shot to the mouth early, giving up 12 straight points after a season-opening Miles Bridges dunk just four seconds into the contest.

“What I was most disappointed in was our defensive effort,” Izzo said. “I felt a couple guys let their offensive woes get to their defense. We didn’t get back very well, we looked tired.”

Led by Bridges and Cassius Winston, MSU clawed back to tie the game at 13. But Ferris State battled for much of the rest of the contest, led by an all-around solid performance from its backcourt. D’angelo Hughes led the Bulldogs with 14 points, while Noah King scored 13, 11 in the first half alone. Preseason Division II-All American center Zach Hankins also tallied 12 points and eight rebounds for the Bulldogs.

With 7:29 left in the first half, clinging to a four-point lead, the Spartans—and their fans—got quite the scare when Miles Bridges hit the deck hard attempting to steal a pass. The sophomore landed awkwardly on his right side, breaking his fall with his right arm and shoulder. Bridges ended up taking the most contact to the right side of his face, which he covered with a towel as he walked out of the arena.

“It was scary for me because I was sitting right there in front of him when he fell,” Josh Langford said. “I see him do that play all the time, but he never falls that hard.”

Trailing 38-35 at the halftime break, the Spartans needed a spark after playing a flat first 20 minutes. So, to just about everyone’s surprise, Bridges returned after the halftime break, a move he says he had no hesitation in making.

“Especially when I heard we were losing by three, I was ready to get back out there,” he said.

The Bulldogs had no physical match for Bridges, who finished the day with 19 points on 6-of-15 shooting. His only three-point make of the day tied the game at 40 just 92 seconds into the second half.

[su_pullquote align=”right”]“Especially when I heard we were losing by three, I was ready to get back out there.”
–Miles Bridges[/su_pullquote]

Jaren Jackson, one of the Spartans’ two scholarship freshmen, also created mismatch problems for the Bulldogs. Jackson’s wiry 6-foot-11 frame gave him an advantage down low, as he scored 14 points and added eight rebounds. But his most impressive stat had to be his eight blocks, showing that he was up for the physical toll of game action.

“I think Jaren really grew up tonight,” Izzo said. “He’s been getting pushed a little bit more in practice and he responded, and that’s what the great players do.”

The Bulldogs would not let the Spartans escape for much of the second half, hanging tight enough to force the fifth tie of the game with 7:05 left, with the score knotted at 60.

One of the keys to the Spartans’ struggles was the long-range shooting. Langford and Matt McQuaid, Izzo’s top shooting guards, combined to shoot 2-for-22 from the field in a forgettable shooting night. The team shot 26 percent on the day from beyond the arc.

“If my two 2-guards go 2-for-22, we probably won’t win any games,” Izzo quipped after the game.

Langford particularly struggled after being praised for a hard-working offseason. The Huntsville, Ala. native went 0-for-12 from the field and missed all five of his shots from beyond the arc.

“At the end of the day, you’ve just got to learn how to deal with adversity,” Langford said. “Because that’s what basketball is about, but most importantly, that’s what life is about.

“As a man, you’ve just got to learn how to see things head-on and just move forward. And not let it get you out of your character. I let myself get out of who I am and what I stand for, how I play the game of basketball. But you just live and you learn.”

MSU got the final momentum shots it needed from Winston. The sophomore starting point guard led all scorers with 26 points—21 of which came in the second half. Winston hit two three’s to ice the game with under three minutes left, giving the Spartans two rare double-digit cushions.

“Just had to make some big plays towards the end just to try to pull away and get a victory,” Winston said. “Whatever we can do to get a win, that’s what we’re going to do.”

After closing out the tougher-than-expected victory, Izzo and the team were surprisingly upbeat about the team’s future, alluding to this contest as more of a bump in the road.

“We have practiced so much harder than we played,” the 23rd-year coach said. “I’m not worried about it being a ‘that’s who we are,’ because I’ve seen who we are over the last five months.”

With a returning cast of young talented players who gained a wealth of experience on last year’s 20-15 squad, Michigan State’s preseason praise certainly was well-deserved. But players like Winston know that “reality check” games like Thursday’s will not cut it later in the season.

“A lot of people (have been) praising us. This just shows we’re not there yet,” he said. “And that’s okay, it’s early. We’ve got a lot of time to work on that. But we’re not there yet, we’re not a national championship team right at this moment.”

The Spartans will travel to Grand Rapids Sunday for a charity game against Georgia. Proceeds from the game, which has already been sold out, will benefit hurricane relief in the Bahamas and Georgia. Tipoff is set for 2:00 p.m. from Van Andel Arena.