COLLEGE PARK, MD. — In a game that had all the feels of a championship-caliber tilt, Michigan State held their lead against Maryland this time, escaping a hostile College Park environment with a crucial 78-66 win.
Rough starts on the road have been MSU’s Kryptonite this season, but tonight was the complete opposite for Tom Izzo’s squad. You could tell they were ready to go right from tip-off, hopping out to a 17-5 lead to start the game.
“I thought there was a little more fire from the opening get-go,” Izzo said.
That start was fueled by freshman Malik Hall.
MSU had been badly needing someone to emerge as their third scorer. Hall showed earlier this season against Seton Hall that he can be that scorer for MSU, but he hasn’t performed consistently.
But after a 16-point (5-5 from the field) and six rebound showing in 23 minutes, the freshman is definitely making his case to be that third scorer for MSU.
“Trust in my preparation is all it is really,” said Hall. “A lot of work outside that [people] don’t see, late nights in the gym.”
As has been the case with many MSU leads this season, it wouldn’t last too long. Maryland stormed back, tying the game at 23 about halfway through the first half.
The Terps fed off the electric Xfinity Center, where the energy was palpable and impressive throughout the night.
Despite his four first-half turnovers, Cassius Winston reminded everyone why he is the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year. One pass he made into Xavier Tillman in the low post made every basketball fan in the arena sit back and say, “Wow.”
Along with showcasing the vision that only he has, he led all scorers in the first half with 13 points. The final three came on a half-court buzzer-beater that silenced the crowd in College Park and gave the Spartans a 40-29 lead going into halftime.
The second half began the same way the first half started, with MSU scoring at will. The offensive burst forced an early timeout from Terps head coach Mark Turgeon after their lead grew to 49-33.
No matter what Turgeon game-planned in his huddles, he couldn’t combat the simple fact that MSU’s level of play was higher throughout the night. And when shots are falling, shots are just falling.
“I think we were locked in on what was happening,” said Hall. “Making the right plays at the right time was a lot of that.”
But everyone in College Park and in East Lansing knew that the Terps weren’t out of this game until the clock hit zeroes. Maryland has won four Big Ten games this season while trailing with five minutes to go, and already did that against MSU once this season.
Maryland certainly kept things interesting in the second half. They increased their intensity and cut MSU’s lead to 10 multiple times, but MSU’s ability to hit shots at seemingly perfect moments on the night was uncanny.
Rocket Watts’ performance on the night was similar in importance to that of fellow freshman Hall. Watts contributed 13 points but his impact was felt most on the defensive side of the ball.
Watts held Terps playmaker Anthony Cowan Jr. to 6-15 from the field and 13 points, compared to 24 in the prior match in East Lansing.
“Rocket did an unbelievable job on who I think is one of the great players in our league,” said Izzo.
“I was really looking forward to it,” said Watts. “My main focus was to try to keep him contained and I thought I did a good job at that.”
The Terps weren’t ever able to cut the lead to single digits in the second half and fans at the Xfinity Center headed home with a sour taste in their mouth, and a slight unease about the security of their pole position in the Big Ten standings.
The win keeps MSU in contention for the Big Ten title.
Maryland remains in first place with a conference record of 13-5 and MSU is one spot back in second with a record in the Big Ten of 12-6.
MSU goes to Penn State on Tuesday for another important Big Ten road game. Tip is set for 7 p.m.