East Lansing – Michigan State entered Sunday’s game against Penn State as the No. 1 scoring team in the Big Ten.
The Spartans have run past their share of opponents this season, and by halftime against the Nittany Lions they had 52 points. But this program has been built on defense and rebounding, and rarely have the Spartans strayed from that.
The 88-57 blowout of Penn State on Sunday was just the latest example. The top-shooting team in the Big Ten made only three of its first 15 attempts, but it hardly slowed No. 6 Michigan State as it led by 25 points at halftime and ended the half shooting better than 50 percent from the field.
“We wanted to accomplish some things that I thought we accomplished,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “We talked to our guys about having day when the shots aren’t going in, and early on they didn’t go in. Denzel (Valentine) was 0-for-6 and we were 3-for-15, which is even worse. Then we went 14-for-18 (the rest of the first half).
“But defense and rebounding kept us in the game and that’s the way it’s gotta be if you’re gonna win as we move forward.”
That defense held Penn State to 32.2 percent shooting for the game while a rebounding advantage of 51-33 was sparked by the play of big men Matt Costello and Deyonta Davis.
“Those guys, today, played like men,” Izzo said of Costello and Davis.
They, of course, were aided by those shooters that were hitting their shots by the end of the half.
Valentine scored 19 while grabbing eight rebounds and handing out six assists while Bryn Forbes added 15 points. Davis scored 15 and Costello 10 with 11 rebounds.
“It was nice to see Matt back with a double-double,” Izzo said. “He only played 19 minutes, so that was impressive. I thought we took a step forward.”
Shep Garner scored 22 for Penn State (15-14, 6-10) while Payton Banks scored 12 and Devin Foster 11.
But Penn State had little left by the time the second half rolled around, and its three-game winning streak became a distant memory.
“We were 4-1 and playing really good basketball and we have seen some good things and have been playing tougher basketball,” Penn State coach Pat Chambers said. “But Michigan State is playing really incredible right now and the first 10 minutes they showed just how well Denzel is playing, and Forbes and Costello, the three seniors. You hear them out there talking all the time. We were just trying to fight and we didn't get to do that today.”
Chambers had plenty of fight, getting tossed from the game with 4:53 left in the first half.
While he was upset with the officials, he was likely as upset his team proved early it wasn’t going to be able to match a Michigan State team that believes it still has a shot to grab a share of the Big Ten regular-season title.
The Spartans will need some help, but they are closer to locking up a spot in the top four of the conference to earn a bye into the quarterfinals of the conference tournament. They’re also looking to bolster their resume for the NCAA Tournament with a trip to Rutgers set for Wednesday and a visit from Ohio State to close things out Saturday.
“After Purdue beat Maryland yesterday, last night we did say, ‘Hey, there’s a little crack in the door,’” Izzo said. “What we have to do is take care of our business. Then, if somebody helps us, they help us. And if they don’t, I’m cool with that.
“There’s not many times we’re playing with three games left and haven’t had a shot at winning (the Big Ten), a decent shot. This is a long, long, long, long shot. But we’ve homed in on the one-and-done thing and how we need to get better with the little things come tournament time.”
Getting the win Sunday the way Izzo likes – rebounding and defending – are prime examples of those little things. And with just two games to play, he’s realizing his team is about to hit the postseason at the perfect time.
“Today was a tough day for them because they’re a better team than how they played,” Izzo said of Penn State. “I thought we did a lot of good things and if we keep growing and not let any distractions in, we’ve got a chance to make a run here. That’s what it’s all about this time of year.”