Ward, Tillman kick off MSU’s 2019 in winning fashion

Luke Sloan, Assistant Sports Editor

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Dominant performances by forwards Nick Ward and Xavier Tillman propelled No. 8 Michigan State to a 81-55 victory over Northwestern to open 2019.

The Spartans made it a point to pound the ball inside early and often, feeding Ward and Tillman on nearly every possession and running the offense through the two leading-scorers. MSU held the edge in points in the paint 52-28 with Ward posting 21 to lead all scorers and Tillman putting up 14.

“He’s a terrific player, he’s gotten himself into unbelievable shape,” Northwestern head coach Chris Collins said when discussing Ward. “He’s strong and has great moves in the low-post, he does a great job of always getting really deep position. He puts a lot of pressure on the officials because he creates a lot of contact, he got our big guys in a lot of foul trouble.”

Joshua Langford, dealing with a lingering ankle injury he suffered in practice last week, did not suit up against the Wildcats. Kyle Ahrens started in his place, scoring 13 points in 21 minutes. Freshman Aaron Henry also filled in, playing 19 minutes while adding 4 points.

“I liked the way we practiced this week,” MSU head coach Tom Izzo said. “They handled it really well and I was really pleased about that.”

MSU led 26-24 with 8:34 remaining in the first half before going on a 21-2 run to inflate the lead and take full control. Collins had multiple opportunities to take a timeout and stop the bleeding, but miss after miss for Northwestern turned into points for the Spartans, who ran an efficient transition offense to fuel the spurt.

Ward did all of his scoring in the first half, leading his team to a 52-32 halftime lead with his stellar play on both ends of the floor. Izzo went out of his way to mention Ward’s play on the defensive end of the floor when most focus was on the junior’s offensive play.

Scoring in the second half would slow down from the 70-percent shooting clip the Spartans slashed in the first, this was due in part to 11 first-half turnovers. The 14 turnovers on the night eclipsed their season average of 12.8.

Izzo’s gameplan to score inside was followed so closely that the Spartans only attempted four 3-pointers in the first half, coming off a game against Northern Illinois when MSU heaved 29 shots from beyond the arc.

Cassius Winston didn’t post explosive scoring numbers like his previous two games (26 and 24 points) but he did contribute 12 assists, one short of his career-high. Tillman shot 6-of-7 to tie his career-high with 14 points.

“It’s gonna be a tough conference,” Winston said. “There’s a lot of good teams. I feel like we’re ready for it, ready to make this run.”

Michigan State dominated the pace of play, outscoring the Wildcats 28-4 in transition to lead the contest for all but four minutes of play.

“You can sense when [other teams] get tired,” Winston said. The junior guard added 13 points on 4-of-6 shooting. “It’s hard to keep pushing it and running with us.”

Center Dererk Pardon led Northwestern with 19 points in 27 minutes while battling foul trouble.

Michigan State (12-2, 3-0 Big Ten) next travels to Columbus, Ohio on Saturday to take on Chris Holtmann’s Ohio State Buckeyes, tipoff is scheduled for noon. Live play-by-play from Columbus can be found on WDBM (88.9 FM) in the Lansing area.