Ahead of Sunday, the No. 11 Michigan State Spartans had never lost to the Rutgers Scarlet Knights. Ever. Senior point guard Cassius Winston and company made sure that the streak would continue, as the Spartans defeated the Scarlet Knights by a score of 77-65.
Tom Izzo’s Spartans had plenty to work on following an embarrassing effort in a home loss vs. Duke on Tuesday. Evidently, history would suggest that Rutgers was a good opponent to bounce back against. And ultimately, history was correct.
“The most important thing is to play with some toughness,” Izzo said after the win. “That’s what I think this team lacked against Duke. I did not think we played with any sense of purpose or toughness; I thought we did that tonight.”
But it wasn’t necessarily a pretty win for Michigan State, as the final score fails to reflect how tight the game was all evening long. Every time that the Spartans packed a punch to pull away in what most thought would be a fairly easy win, the Scarlet Knights made plays and runs to stick around.
Low and behold, it was the Spartans’ team effort that resulted in victory. Four players scored in double figures for the Green and White, consisting of Winston, Xavier Tillman, Gabe Brown and Aaron Henry.
Perhaps the most compelling double figures performances came from the latter two, Brown and Henry… for very different reasons.
With freshman guard Rocket Watts sidelined with a leg injury, someone else had to step up in the starter’s absence. Izzo went with Brown, and Brown really answered the bell with a new season-high 14 points. He also played a career-high 34 minutes.
“I’m just blessed that (Izzo) went towards me. I never thought in a million years I’d be starting on a Michigan State basketball team,” Brown said. “But the opportunity came and I took advantage of it.”
As for Henry, the sophomore looked to assert himself after an underwhelming two-point performance against Duke. His dozen points vs. Rutgers provide Spartan fans with something to hold onto as the season rolls along.
Neither Brown nor Henry shot the ball well, shooting a combined 4-for-18 on the night, including 3-for-11 from deep. But it was their athletic prowess and ability to get into the lane that found them both in double figures, as the pair shot a combined 16 free throws.
“Me and Aaron both knew that our shot wasn’t falling,” Brown said. “But we see openings and gaps where we can drive and finish or maybe get fouled… I know Aaron, and I know Aaron can finish that any time.”
Rutgers’ hope for much of the game was driven by redshirt-senior Akwasi Yeboah, who dropped 17 points off the bench. He was responsible for half of the team’s made 3-pointers with a pair of them and was one of just three Scarlet Knights to shoot above 50%.
The Winston/Tillman duo posted what very well could be their best game of the young season as a tandem. Winston was brilliant with 23 points including 50% from 3-point range, and he added seven assists. Tillman dropped 14 points and grabbed 10 rebounds to give him the double-double. Tillman also drilled an unusual 3-pointer in the second half.
“We definitely ran a lot more in transition,” Tillman said. “I was able to get some seals so he (Winston) could get some easy layups… I was able to run myself and get some easy dunks and layups. We definitely took advantage of transition and that’s something we’ve got to do more.”
One thing that’s for sure, the Big Ten will present Michigan State with much more threatening opponents than Rutgers. But for now, a win is a win, and the Spartans did just that at home to start the conference schedule 1-0.
Michigan State takes on Oakland at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit on Saturday, while Rutgers hosts Wisconsin on Wednesday.
Contact Trent Balley at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @tbal91.