By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
TULSA, Okla. – Michigan State got its bad stretch of basketball against Miami out of the way early in its NCAA Tournament first-round game at the BOK Center Friday night.
In previous big games against Arizona, Kentucky, Baylor and Duke, the Spartans hung tough with the high-octane competition, only to be done in by three- or four-minute lapses that ultimately cost them the game.
This time, the lapse began two seconds into the game when freshman power forward Nick Ward was called for a rarely seen foul off the center jump. More fouls and turnovers ensued, which the Hurricanes used to build 10-0 and 17-5 leads and conjure of memories of MSU’s disastrous beginning against Middle Tennessee State last year in St. Louis.
“We were really shaky early,” said head coach Tom Izzo. “We responded like a bunch of freshmen, to be honest with you. We weren't as sharp as we needed to be.”
But after taking the Midwest Regional eighth seed’s best flurry of punches, Michigan State rolled with youthful exuberance to a 38-27 halftime lead. And after a lapse-free second half, the No. 9 Spartans’ secured a date with No. 1 Kansas in Sunday afternoon’s second round with a mind-bending 78-58 victory.
After MSU committed its seventh turnover with 11:14 remaining in the first half, it played its best basketball of the year on both ends of the court the rest of the way. The Spartans had only five more turnovers, with four of those coming in the final 6:15 as the Hurricanes tried to full-court-press their way out of a 22-point deficit, and Ward, no stranger to foul trouble throughout the season, didn’t pick up his second until there was just over five minutes to play.
After being temporarily stunned by Ward’s first personal, MSU cleared its head and settled down.
“I’d never seen anything like that before, a foul that early,” said freshman point guard Cassius Winston, who scored seven points and finished with five assists against zero turnovers. “But we grind it out and make it happen.
“We were like, all right, they punched us in the mouth and everything that could happen happened and now it’s our turn to make our run. And then we just handled business.”
The Spartans proceeded to make 56.6 percent of their shots from the floor against a Miami defense that held North Carolina to 35 percent in a regular-season win over the Tar Heels and Duke to 31.8 percent in a victory against the Blue Devils.
“I don’t know if they thought they (had us beat),” Winston said. “It was so early in the game, no team should quit or let up, but I’m pretty sure they were confident they could do something with that run. But us having the season that we had, we’re battle tested. We’ve been through a lot this year, so when we saw we were down 10 or 12, we weren’t fazed.”
The Hurricanes tried to cross up the Spartans with a 2-3 matchup zone defense that Izzo credited associate head coach Dwayne Stephens for including in the scouting report.
Izzo admitted to being worried about how Ward, Winston and fellow freshmen Miles Bridges and Joshua Langford would respond to their first experience in one of the greatest sporting events in the world.
“All the big games we’ve played in, I still must have warned them 15 times, but they did some foolish things early, casual things,” Izzo said. “And you know that’s nerves because they don’t play when they’re just throwing the ball (away). They don’t do that.
“But we kept playing defense, quit turning it over and I thought executed pretty well on offense. To shoot 56 percent against team that held Duke and Carolina to what they did was really big for us. When you turn it over that much, it was pretty easy to come up with a solution – quit turning the ball over.”
With quick play, exceptional ball-movement and crisp passing, Michigan State defeated the zone. Ward hurt the Hurricanes inside with 19 points while putting in his best defensive performance of his young career, fellow freshman Miles Bridges scored some of his 18 points with high-flying putback dunks and a pair of 3-pointers and Langford had 13.
“They responded,” Izzo said. “No matter whatever happens now, they responded, they kind of proved to themselves, against a good-quality team, that they could get down and bounce back. So, is that going to be an everyday happening?
“You know, it’s still a process here. But do they have a benchmark now to say, hey we did this, we did that? I think the answer was, yes. I can’t think of anybody who didn’t play well.”
Just about every Spartan made a contribution to closing out Miami with Ward and Bridges crediting senior guard Alvin Ellis III and junior point guard Tum Tum Nairn for steadying the ship.
Langford scored nine of MSU’s first 11 points in the second half, and his 3-pointer increased the lead to 49-32. And when Ellis missed from 3-point range, but Bridges soared above the rim for a tip-dunk that spurred a fan in the stands to chant: “Highlight reel, highlight reel.” Sophomore shooting guard Matt McQuaid scored seven points and he assisted on Ellis’ layup that gave the Spartans their biggest margin, 64-41, with 8:51 remaining.
“Once we figured out their defense, we really attacked it the right way,” Langford said. “I feel like they had some miscommunications in their matchup zone, so we attacked it well. A lot of people made great plays out of it.
“McQuaid, Tum, Cash, everybody was just in the flow tonight and in sync once we got going.”
Playing the closest game to his hometown of Duncanville, Texas since joining the Spartans, McQuaid had his parents, grandparents, brother and sister, other relatives and friends and his former high school coach watching on from the MSU cheering section.
And while he was involved in last season’s first-round loss, he never got a sinking feeling that they made the 270-mile trip for nothing.
“We started making reads,” McQuaid said. “We calmed down, got the ball in the middle of the paint, Miles was making plays and Kenny (Goins) was in the middle, too, making the right plays. It just took a while for us to get used to it. Coach has been stressing all year to focus for 40 minutes and we probably won’t be able to have a lapse again like that in this tournament.”
And so, the Spartans have survived to advance to the Round of 32 for the 13th time in Izzo’s 20 tournament appearances. Their reward is a chance to play the Big 12 regular season champ Jayhawks, who dismantled the University of California-Davis, 100-62.
“The only thing I’m happy about is I get to work another night,” he said. “You just want to keep working and I wanted a shot at Kansas. I felt like I’m going to regret some of that when I saw the second half (of its game) on TV.
“Then again, we played three teams during the year that were ranked No. 1 at one time. So now we get the fourth, and that’s the way the season should go, that’s the way it’s been for us.”