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Evanston, Ill. — It turns out that being in and around Chicago might be just what Matt McQuaid needs to get things going.

The Michigan State freshman was big in the Spartans’ win over Kansas in the second game of the season, and on Thursday at Northwestern he broke through a bit of the “freshman wall” by scoring a career-high 17 and leading No. 12 Michigan State to a 76-45 victory at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

“I don’t know,” McQuaid said with a laugh when asked what he liked about the Windy City. “It felt good. I had really good screens from my teammates and got great passes and Denzel (Valentine) made it easy to make shots. Zel was looking for me and I came off and shot with confidence.

“It was a good team win and I’m glad we got the win.”

BOX SCORE: Michigan State 76, Northwestern 45

McQuaid scored 11 straight at one point in the second half, including three 3-pointers that helped break the game open. It was only the second time this season he has scored in double-figures and his three 3-pointers matched his season-best established in the Kansas game.

“He was hitting shots early and then he hadn’t hit shots for a while,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “McQuaid gave us a big lift. They guarded us very well and we started running something in the second half and we got a couple of open looks and he hit some shots.”

The victory was the answer the Spartans (18-4, 5-4 Big Ten) were looking for after ending a three-game skid with a big victory over Maryland last weekend.

Taking care of business against a Northwestern team that had lost three straight was vital, as will continuing the momentum Sunday at home against Rutgers.

“I do think we showed some character,” Izzo said. “We played in a big game and didn’t have a letdown in what I consider a big game. It definitely wasn’t a ranking game like the Maryland-Michigan State game. It was a game that we did enough good things and had enough people step up.”

Denzel Valentine was hot in the first half and finished with 19 points, six rebounds and seven assists after scoring 14 in the first half. Deyonta Davis added eight points, matched a  career-high with 11 rebounds and had a career-high six blocks.

Michigan State was 16-for-26 from 3-point range, finishing one shy of a program-record 17 3-pointers established in 2014 against Purdue.

As impressive as the Spartans' shooting performance was, their defense was just as remarkable. Northwestern shot just 20.7 percent (12-for-58), including 4-for-23 from 3-point range.

“Obviously a tough night and it’s hard to win when you can’t make shots,” Northwestern coach Chris Collins said. “If you can’t put the ball in the basket you’re not gonna win against really good teams. They're really good.

“They got 26 open 3s and made 16 and we got 23 open 3s and made four. That’s minus-36. Do the math. It’s not brain surgery.”

Bryant McIntosh scored 14 to lead Northwestern (15-7, 3-6) while Aaron Falzon added 11 points. Senior guard Tre Demps was just 2-for-14 from the field.

Michigan State went on a 3-point barrage midway through the first half to break open a close game. With the Spartans leading 9-6, six of their next seven baskets were 3-pointers, including three from Valentine, as they opened a 31-16 lead.

CLOSE

Michigan State has now won two straight.

Northwestern chipped away and cut the margin to 10 before Valentine nailed another 3-pointer, then fed Davis for a short jumper for a 36-24 lead. Valentine’s half-court heave at the buzzer came up short headed into halftime.

It didn’t take long for things to get out of hand in the second half as Michigan State made another eight 3-pointers. McQuaid got going from the perimeter while Davis made it a good night for the freshman duo by controlling the paint on defense.

“It’s good for us because now we can take that next step,” McQuaid said. “It gives us a lot of confidence. Everyone on the team has confidence and everybody shot the ball well. We moved the ball well, played great defense and it turned out to be a great win.”

To keep the momentum rolling, Izzo knows his team will need to keep getting better. It turned the ball over 15 times and was in foul trouble for most of the game.

“The first half we were sloppy with the ball but we got a lead,” Izzo said. “The second half I thought we executed a little better, but I thought our defense was as good as it needed to be and we found a way to get a win. I’m learning more and more and I don’t really like it, but if you make shots it takes away all evils, and we made a lot of shots.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/mattcharboneau

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