Freshmen keep MSU's NCAA bid on track

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Michigan State is making its final push toward and NCAA Tournament berth and it doesn’t have the luxury of relying on veteran players to lead it through the final two weeks of the regular season.

On Thursday night against Nebraska, the formula the Spartans will need the rest of the way was clear as it was the four freshmen that led Michigan State to an 88-72 victory over Nebraska at Breslin Center.

Miles Bridges and Nick Ward each scored 20 to lead the Spartans — the first Michigan State freshman duo to score 20 or more in the same game since Earvin “Magic” Johnson (31) and Jay Vincent (22) on Jan. 5, 1978 vs. Minnesota — while Ward also grabbed nine rebounds, and Joshua Langford scored a career-high 17.

They got help from classmate Cassius Winston, who had eight assists, including a lob off the backboard to Bridges in the opening half.

BOX SCORE: Michigan State 88, Nebraska 72

“I do think they responded,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “I just think they’ve got to learn to play both ends of the court. Are the freshmen taking over? Nick and Miles have been fairly consistent.

“I thought Miles played good, he didn’t play great. He had one rebound in the second half and he was disappointed in that, but we still need him to be more aggressive. Nick missed some good shots early. Josh hit a couple shots but was 5-for-12, so he’s got some work to do. They definitely looked more aggressive and looked more comfortable, that part is great.”

The win completed the season sweep of Nebraska while the victory also moves Michigan State (17-11, 9-6 Big Ten) into a tie for fourth place in the Big Ten with Northwestern and Minnesota, two teams the Spartans hold the tiebreaker over for seeding in the conference tournament. The win wasn’t a huge resume builder as much as it was it avoided a bad loss. Nebraska (12-15, 6-9) had won two straight entering the game and has wins this season over both Maryland and Purdue.

Tai Webster scored 19 to lead the Huskers, making 11 free throws and grabbing 10 rebounds, while Evan Taylor added 10 points.

“We’re definitely getting better,” Winston said. “I think that’s finally starting to show. It’s been a long season and we’ve had a lot of time to work on ourselves and work on getting better at this level and tonight it kind of showed.”

Michigan State blew the game open late in the first half, closing on a 21-5 run to turn a 28-26 advantage into a 49-31 lead at halftime that was capped by Winston’s 3-pointer from roughly 40 feet, just past half-court, at the buzzer.

Before that, however, the Spartans were busy taking control of the game as Bridges scored seven straight points, hitting a running layup, slamming home a lob off the backboard from Winston and nailing a 3-pointer from the corner that gave Michigan State a 43-29 lead with 1:37 to play in the half.

Langford followed with a 3-pointer from the wing and after Webster hit a pair of free throws with 3.2 seconds left, Winston took the inbounds pass, pushed the ball up the floor and shot on the run as the ball went through at the buzzer.

“They outplayed us in every facet of the game,” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said. “Points in the paint, second-chance points, fast-break points — they dominated us in those areas.

“The devastating part of the game for us winning or losing was that last four minutes of the first half. They had three threes in the last 90 seconds and only had four all night.

“That’s a lot to overcome.”

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The Spartans continued to roll in the second half, scoring the first five points to push their lead to 54-31 and extend the run from late in the first half to 26-3.

Nebraska answered with a 7-0 run to trim the deficit to 16, but Michigan State answered with a 10-2 run to pull away. Nebraska’s only other threat was when it trimmed the margin to 71-56 with a little more than seven minutes to play, but Michigan State pushed the lead back to 24.

Michigan State plays its final home game at 4 p.m. Sunday against Wisconsin, before finishing the regular season with games at Illinois and Maryland.

For those final three games to go well, the Spartans will need its youngsters to keep playing like they did on Thursday.

“Cassius can pass the ball as well as anybody, I told you that at the beginning, middle and end,” Izzo said. “You know what I think of Miles and Nick and Josh is coming.

“It’s taken longer, but he is a unique kid, but he’s getting more comfortable and confident.” @mattcharboneau