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MSU finds toughness in second half of Big Ten opener

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Minneapolis — Ultimately, Michigan State’s overtime victory at Minnesota on Tuesday night was just that — a win.

It was the first of 18 conference games, and in that sense, it matters quite a bit considering it came on the road against a team that already has won four more games than it did all of last season.

But how it played out and what it might mean to Michigan State (9-5, 1-0 Big Ten) as it jumps into conference play, eager to move on from a difficult nonconference portion of the season, could be difficult to quantify. For a team that has been scuffling with Miles Bridges out with an ankle injury, erasing a 15-point deficit and rallying on the road might be just what it needed to start steering things in the right direction.

“It definitely brings us closer together,” said junior guard LouRawls Nairn, whose 13 points Tuesday matched a career high. “Coming on the road in a tough environment to play Minnesota. The freshmen, this is their first Big Ten season. This is like a Duke environment. Every game is so close in the Big Ten but it definitely gave us some confidence going into our next game and how we prepare. But we’ll also learn from our mistakes because they could have cost us the game.”

There was little doubt about that, especially in the first half as Michigan State turned the ball over 10 times and shot just 10-for-29 from the field, trailing by 13 at the break.

That’s when coach Tom Izzo went after his team, frustrated with the mistakes and lack of focus.

“At halftime, I challenged our players with everything except the kitchen sink,” Izzo said. “I challenged them about the players that played here, from the Magics to the Cleaves to the Draymonds and Travis; and I challenged them about their own families because I thought we embarrassed ourselves the way we got pushed around in that first half.

“To our credit, we scored more in the second half but defended a lot better. … We battled but we still have some issues, the free-throw shooting, the this and that. But I’m so proud of the fact we only had two turnovers in the second half. I think we grew up as a team.”

The absence of Bridges has been a huge hit to the Spartans, as have the preseason injuries to Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter. But in their absence, there have been signs of progress. Often that progress wasn’t coming in the form of big wins, but more in short stints of solid play.

As Izzo said earlier in the week, Michigan State had played a lot of good minutes of basketball as players like freshmen Cassius Winston and Nick Ward had taken advantage of their expanded roles. Until Tuesday, however, it hadn’t all come together.

Senior Alvin Ellis played a big role with 20 points against Minnesota, rising to the challenge Izzo and his staff posed to him a couple of weeks ago.

“They were just saying we need more leadership, more guys step up,” Ellis said. “A lot of these young guys haven’t been through this Big Ten Conference play and we know it’s tough. I’ve been through it so they need my leadership.”

And the play of Nairn can’t be ignored, either. Often the source of many fans’ frustrations, Nairn is the heart of the team, and against Minnesota he added an aggressive offensive mindset that resulted in several big shots in the second half, not to mention much tougher defense than was being played in the first.

But for Nairn, it was more about how the team responded, not just the fact he made some big shots.

“We all needed to see it,” Nairn said. “Every day, every possession matters in the Big Ten, so for us it was just sticking together but understanding the margin for error is really, really small. This is as tough environment to play in. I’m just happy for the win.”

The win showed Michigan State has the toughness and grit to get it done in the Big Ten, and with Bridges close to returning, things should get better. The chances for Bridges being back by Friday’s game against Northwestern remain slim, but Izzo said the star forward is close.

Once Bridges is back, Izzo will be happy to figure out how to rework the rotation.

“I’ll enjoy that problem, I promise you that,” Izzo said.

Until then, however, Izzo is confident he has a team that will fight.

“We found a way to win a game with toughness and this team hasn’t done that all year,” Izzo said. “It’s just not one of those teams yet. … But we’re getting a little better and we’ll just keep building on it.

“They vowed do a better job and they did.”