Grinz On Green: Spartans Show Resilience Once Again
MSU bounces back from defeat and injury in impressive victory.
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. – The final five minutes of each half were telling for Michigan State in Thursday night’s game against Nebraska at the Breslin Center, but they only told part of the story.
From the point when junior point guard Tum Tum Nairn made two free throws to open up a four point advantage with 4:43 remaining in the first half to freshman point guard Cassius Winston’s buzzer-beating halfcourt 3-pointer for a 49-31 halftime lead, the young Spartans played to their boundless potential.
So this is how good they can be when their intensity, confidence and fast pace-of-play converge. It was a sentiment that reverberated throughout the Twitterverse.
And after freshman forward Miles Bridges completed a three-point play to put MSU ahead by as many as 24 points one last time, with 4:26 remaining in the game, even Coach Tom Izzo allowed himself to wear mostly a smile of satisfaction the rest of the way as the Spartans coasted to an 88-72 stop.
The final result was yet another example of how this team has embodied both the fluctuations and resilience inherent with youth.
Just as they have all season, the Spartans responded to another low point – in this case the loss of senior guard Eron Harris to a college-career-ending knee injury while absorbing an 11-point loss at Purdue on Saturday – by bouncing back even higher against Nebraska.
Some might even detect a trend.
Get upset by Northeastern in December? No problem, throttle Oakland in the next game.
Lose to Penn State in Philadelphia? Of course MSU was going to respond with an 18-point beat-down of No. 24 Minnesota to sweep the series with the Golden Gophers.
Fall to Purdue at home on Jan. 24? Make up for it by downing Michigan five days later.
Feel like the world is coming to an end with a 29-point loss at Michigan on Feb. 7? Rejoin the human race with a 77-66 victory over Iowa, followed by a critical win over Ohio State.
Lose a key contributor in the process of getting embarrassed by the Boilermakers? Dismantle the Cornhuskers, who were coming off back-to-back wins against Ohio State and Penn State and had beaten Michigan State on their previous two visits to Breslin.
Furthermore, the Spartans made a distinguishing statement while doing it.
With 20 points each, Bridges and power forward Nick Ward became the first Spartan freshman tandem to reach the 20-point mark since Earvin “Magic” Johnson scored 31 and Jay Vincent struck for 22 against Minnesota in 1978.
Winston had eight assists and no turnovers to go with seven points and Joshua Langford, the fourth Beatle, er freshman, scored a career-high 17 points while picking up much of the slack created by Harris’ absence.
Nevertheless, using the other 30 minutes that didn’t come at the end of each half as a barometer, Izzo has taken on the resigned tone of a parent coming to terms with the wild mood swings of a consistently unpredictable teenager – which Bridges and Winston still are and Ward and Langford were until September and January, respectively.
“How do I feel?” Izzo said. “I’m not going to feel good until the end because it’s just going to be one of those years. It’s not bad, there’s just nothing to ever feel comfortable with in this team right now.
“I feel comfortable? Forget it. It ain’t happening this year.”
Well, it did for a while in the first half when the Spartans put on a show on both ends of the court to effectively ensure victory.
The Cornhuskers managed to make to make just 26.7-percent of their shots against MSU’s stout defense while Langford was diving after a 50-50 ball MSU hadn’t been getting to preserve a possession, Winston underhanding the ball off the backboard for Bridge’s fast-break finish with a tomahawk dunk that electrified the crowd and Winston was swishing a pull-up jumper from midcourt.
But, Winston gets where Izzo’s coming from.
“Maybe a lot of it is us being a young team with the freshmen playing a lot of minutes,” Winston said. “We’ve been really inconsistent so I don’t blame him for being on edge with us and things like that, but when we have our highs we’re pretty good so we’re going to keep trying for that.”
The Spartans took command of the game with three of their four 3-pointers in the game coming in succession in the final 1:39 of the first half by Bridges, Langford and on Winston’s shot from the school’s trademarked logo.
But the genesis of MSU’s 18-point lead didn’t stem from its offensive prowess.
“It was the little things, you know,” Winston said. “Josh getting on a loose ball or somebody making a big block and we go down and make a play. It really took us a while to learn that the little things like that – a steal, a big shot -- can start a 12-0 run like it’s nothing.
“Games can change in a blink, so we went all out trying to make those plays by playing with maximum effort each possession.”
Izzo didn’t see things quite the same way, especially in the second half when Michigan State’s fortitude on defense waned and Nebraska made 51.7 percent of its shots.
“I didn’t think Nebraska played as well as I’ve seen them play,” Izzo said. “Maybe some of it was us, but maybe some of it was them. So, I don’t want to be fooled by everything but I did think we did some good things and at times, looked good. I just thought it was a sloppy game.”
Ward, who also had a team-high nine rebounds while staying out of foul trouble, played with a smile on his face and seemed to be thoroughly enjoying himself throughout the game.
“When we play as a team, we’re hard to stop,” he said. “It’s still going to take a lot of time, a lot of effort, a lot of practice. Once we get that, we’ll be all right. Coach Izzo is a hall-of-fame coach, so he knows what he’s talking about. We’ve just to listen to him.”
So far, the Spartans have demonstrated a penchant for handling adversity. What they need to do next, as far as Izzo is concerned, is figure out how to build on prosperity, especially with Wisconsin coming into Breslin Sunday afternoon. At 17-11 overall and 9-6 in the Big Ten, MSU can’t afford many more downs with three regular season games remaining and the NCAA Tournament selection committee watching intently.
“We weren’t aggressive enough on the glass, and me personally, I had only five rebounds,” Bridges said. “So that’s what I think coach was mad about today. Other than that, I thought we were pretty aggressive.
“If we’re playing hard, playing defense, getting to the basket, getting fouled, that’s when we’re playing our best. Just staying aggressive – that’s what we need to do.”