EAST LANSING — No. 24 Michigan State came into Tuesday’s match with No. 18 Iowa suddenly thrust back into the conversation for a Big Ten regular season title after Penn State lost back-to-back games to Illinois and Indiana.
It was a must win, in a lot of ways for the Spartans. As the potential Big Ten Player of the Year in Luka Garza, averaging 23.6 points a game and nearly 10 rebounds, arrived in town.
And unlike against Penn State at home earlier in the season, it was free throw shooting that won the game for MSU, who went 6-of-8 in the final minute to ice a 78-70 win over an Iowa (19-9, 10-7) team that was trending towards the top end of the Big Ten standings.
“Iowa played their tail off, hard to game to play, Cassius had a miserable first half and I think Rocket Watts made some big plays,” Tom Izzo said after the win.
“The player of the game was Xaiver Tillman for me without even blinking an eyelash, he guarded Garza all by himself in the second half and if he is not the best defensive player in this league I don’t know who is.”
MSU (19-9, 11-6 Big Ten) was led in scoring by the streaky Rocket Watts with 21 points. Watts’ layup with 1:20 to go in the game gave MSU a six-point lead, one that would cap his second 20-point game of the year.
Iowa was led in scoring by their star center, Garza, who had 20 points and nine rebounds. The junior, as many stars do at the college level, never came out of the game.
Izzo and the Spartans defeated Nebraska last Thursday, 86-65, in a game where they got double digit points from sophomore Gabe Brown and senior Kyle Ahrens – who has begun to play a big role for MSU as a senior leader.
Tuesday evening, it was the balanced trio of Watts, Winston and Aaron Henry that led MSU. The three scored a combined 58 points on 19-of-36 shooting. Henry scored 17, his highest total since MSU lost to Virginia Tech in Maui last November.
The sophomore from Indianapolis scored 10 points in the final 6:30 of the game, and had 16 points in the second half alone.
Garza just could not get anything to fall in the last minutes.
“We were trying to push it in there and it is pretty physical in there,” said Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery. “There was a difference in the second half in defense.”
Tillman just locked down on defense and came up with a huge block with a minute and change left. That shot was Garza’s first shot in almost a five minute span late in the game.
The junior finished eight-of-21 shooting from the field.
“Amazing, not big on the stat sheet tonight but he (Tillman) did all the effort things to win this game,” said Aaron Henry of Tillman’s play. “He defended a very good player, and he does whatever we need I am happy for him.”
The game really came down to the Spartans defense of Garza and Winston overcoming a slow start to finish with 20 points in the game.
This huge win at home gives the Spartans their eleventh win in the Big Ten and puts them in sole possession of second place for now, with Penn State only a game behind.
MSU will now head to College Park, Maryland, this weekend to take on a No. 9-ranked Terrapin team that shocked the Spartans at home just mere weeks ago as Anthony Cowan Jr. scored 11 points in the final minutes.
The game can be found online at Impact89fm.org/listenlive or on 88.9 FM in the Lansing area. You can watch the game on ESPN, tip-off is set for 8 p.m. EST.
Charlotte Steinberg is a freshmen journalism student that covers men’s and women’s basketball for Impact89FM. Follow her on Twitter @SportsTalkByCS