Spartans hold off pesky Nittany Lions, notch fifth straight win

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Cassius Winston/Photo: MSU Athletic Communications

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Michigan State notched its fifth straight win Wednesday night, outlasting a resilient Penn State bunch, 76-68.

“Don’t kid yourself, that is a good Penn State team,” head coach Tom Izzo said. “They had some losses early and I think they could be a 8-2, 7-3 team [in the Big Ten] if they would’ve had all their pieces.”

The fifth-ranked Spartans (21-3 overall, 9-2 B1G) overcame 16 turnovers on the night to survive a last-minute surge from the Nittany Lions (15-9 overall, 5-6 B1G). MSU is turning the ball over 14.1 times per game, and is second-to-last in the Big Ten with a -2.7 turnover margin.

“The big thing for us now is to fix our starts,” junior guard Matt McQuaid said. “We can’t come out and turn the ball over that much and give up easy buckets. There’s some things we need to fix, we’ve still got some work to do.”

Penn State’s defense suffocated the Spartans in the first half, especially in their half-court sets, holding them to just 38 percent from the floor. However, the Nittany Lions’ defense was shredded in the second half, letting MSU shoot 62.5 percent from the floor, and 55.6 percent from beyond the arc.

“I don’t know why we got off to such a slow start,” Izzo said of his team’s sluggish first half. “The way we kind’ve battled back three different times I think shows some character.”

It was Tony Carr who was the go-to scorer for the Nittany Lions, totalling a game-high 28 points on the night, scoring 14 in each half. The sophomore out of Philadelphia leads the Nittany Lions in scoring (19.2) and assists (4.8) and is second in the conference in scoring.

“Carr is another guy who’s really playing good,” Izzo said. “He hit those big shots at the end but we held him to 9-for-24.”

Miles Bridges paced MSU yet again in scoring, tallying 23 points and nine rebounds on the night. A Bridges 3-pointer at the 13:16 mark in the second half helped fuel a 12-0 Spartans’ run spanning over three minutes. Bridges exploded in the second half, with 14 points coming on a 4-of-6 clip, in which he went 2-for-3 from downtown.

After a scoreless first half, McQuaid knocked down a couple of big-time triples, helping to spark another quick 8-0 run late in the second half. A Cassius Winston lay-in and a couple Nick Ward free throws really brought alive the entire Breslin Center during the run.

“My biggest thing coming off the bench was trying to give some energy,” McQuaid said of the team’s strong second half. “Defensively, it was a team effort for us in the half.”

Winston and Josh Langford had big second halves after a shaky first half, combining for 21 points in the half, going 6-for-11. With 2:17 left, Bridges set Langford up for a straight-away triple that brought the crowd to its feet and all but put the game to bed.

Penn State forced a couple of late Spartan turnovers to make things tight in the last minute, but a couple of late free throws iced the win for MSU who was able to escape the upset.

Michigan State will have a big test in its next five games, with four of those coming on the road, and five of its last seven being played away from home to close out the season. The Spartans are 3-1 on the road this year and know just how focused they need to be during that stretch.

“We can’t come out stagnant against these teams coming up,” Bridges said. “We’re just gonna have ourselves out there and we’ve just gotta come out strong.”

With the win, Michigan State improves to 21-3 on the year and 9-2 in conference play. Next up for the Spartans is a road test with Indiana on Saturday, with tipoff scheduled for 8:15 p.m.