No. 10 Spartans fight back late, can’t finish against No. 1 Kansas

INDIANAPOLIS–The new-look Michigan State men’s basketball team took a familiar stage Tuesday night in the Champions Classic in Indianapolis. But for the first time in the event, they didn’t have enough firepower to hang with Kansas.

In front of a national television audience, the No. 10 Spartans struggled to stay in it early against the No. 1 Jayhawks. MSU did punch back often, refusing to lie down when the Jayhawks broke open runs. After working the Jayhawk lead down to three late, Kansas prevailed and notched a season-opening victory, 92-87.

Aaron Henry made the most of his first action as a Spartan, slamming home a dunk off a baseline out-of-bounds pass to bring the Spartans within three early.

“I was supposed to take the ball out,” the Indianapolis native said. “So I’m just looking like, ‘I’ve got to cut hard here’, because I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. I just caught it and gave a little hop-step and dunked it.”

The Spartans started out 3-for-4 from beyond the arc in the first five minutes and trailed just 18-16 eight minutes into the game. But Kansas then used a 12-1 run to create separation, never trailing by less than double digits the rest of the half. Meanwhile, MSU went cold from outside until a Kyle Ahrens three at the halftime buzzer whittled the Jayhawk lead to 50-36. The free throw line was also not kind to MSU in the first half: the Spartans missed 11 of their 25 free throws before the break.

“In the first half we didn’t execute. We had a lot of iso plays, and we never play with isolation,” Xavier Tillman said. “I can’t explain it at all.”

Kenny Goins led the way for the Spartans at the break with 9 points and 7 rebounds. Winston scored 6 in the first, while Nick Ward struggled against constant double teams from the Jayhawks. He missed all five of his first half shots and went 4-for-8 from the free throw line, struggling against a talented Jayhawk frontcourt.

“Dedric (Lawson) was really skillful, (Udoka) Azubuike is big,” Ward said after going 2-for-8 for the game. “So it was the best of both worlds. So it was definitely a different challenge, something that I have to get used to for the rest of the season.”

Marcus Bingham entered with 33.2 seconds left in the first half, ending any speculation as to whether or not he would redshirt his first year as a Spartan. Fellow freshmen Foster Loyer and Thomas Kithier also saw playing time.

Following two misses to start the second half, the Spartans hit seven straight shots to cut the Kansas lead to 63-55 just over five minutes in. Josh Langford (18 points) hit three from long range in that stretch as the Spartans created opportunities in transition.

Langford did, however, struggle with foul trouble in the second, as did Ward. The Spartans had committed 10 fouls in the half by the eight minute mark, and both Langford and Ward had to ride the bench with four fouls each. Many of the Spartans’ fouls came as they fought to get defensive stops, trying to defend their way back into the game.

Kansas went without a field goal in the last 4:53 of the game, and the Spartans took advantage. Kenny Goins (17 points, 11 rebounds) tipped in a missed three from Langford to bring the score to 90-84 with 78 seconds remaining, then Kyle Ahrens hit a three to bring it to 90-87 with 34 seconds left.

“It’s been a long journey,” said Ahrens, who missed all of last season with a foot injury. “It felt really good for it to go in.”

But Devon Dotson and Quentin Grimes each hit a free throw to ice the game for the Jayhawks, 92-87. The Spartans dropped their third-straight Champions Classic game.

Goins showed out the most after being named a starter over the rising sophomore Tillman. He notched a career-high 17 points and grabbed 11 rebounds.

“It must’ve been their game plan to leave me open,” Goins said. “I’ve got the confidence to let it go.”

After trailing by 17 early in the second half, the Spartans locked in and gritted the game back to three. MSU players and coaches were not willing to accept that moral victory, but they knew there were plenty of lessons learned about their potential this season.

“We’ve got a lot of character,” Goins said. “Just the fact that we fought back from where we were. Obviously we’ve got a lot to learn from in both halves, but a lot of positives in that second half that we can look back on and carry forward.”

Michigan State welcomes Florida Gulf Coast to the Breslin Center for its home opener Sunday at 6 p.m.