Tulsa, Okla. — Tom Izzo was worried his freshmen night not handle their first appearance in the NCAA Tournament so well.
They’d been on plenty of big stages throughout the season, played in places like Madison Square Garden and faced a long list of highly rated teams like Kentucky, Duke, Arizona and Baylor.
And in the first 10 minutes of Friday’s matchup with No. 8 Miami in the Midwest Region at the BOK Center, it looked like all of Izzo’s fears were coming true. The Spartans had turned the ball over six times and been outscored 10-0 before they’d even broken a sweat.
“I was worried that those freshmen …” Izzo said, shaking his head. “All the big games we played and I must have warned them 15 times. But we did some foolish things early and that’s nerves. And yet we kept playing defense and quit turning it over.”
It proved to be the perfect formula as ninth-seeded Michigan State exploded midway through the first half and cruised to a 78-58 victory.
“We just never let up,” junior Lourawls Nairn said. “We stayed focused. We started out sloppy and you can’t do that but we survived and advanced and lived to see another day. We just regrouped, came back together and stuck with the game plan and went from there.”
Where Michigan State (20-14) goes now is to Sunday’s second round, when it will take on top-seeded Kansas, which rolled over UC Davis. Tip-off is set for 5:15 p.m.
“The only thing I’m happy about is we get to work another night,” Izzo said. “You just got to keep working and I wanted a shot at Kansas. I feel like I’m gonna regret some of that when I saw the second half (of Kansas’ win) on TV, but then again think about how we played three different teams this year that were ranked No. 1 at one time so now we get a fourth. That’s the way the season should go. That’s the way it’s been for us.”
Michigan State overcame a 12-point deficit and advanced to face top-seeded Kansas
Nick Ward scored 19 and grabbed seven rebounds to lead Michigan State while Miles Bridges added 18 points and nine rebounds and Joshua Langford scored 13. The Spartans finished 30-for-53 from the field, including 16-for-25 in the second half. They were an impressive 24-for-33 on 2-point shots, good for a percentage of .727.
Those numbers, along with eliminating the silly turnovers, helped the Spartans go on a 30-8 run over the final 10:39 of the first half to take a 38-27 lead into the locker room.
Trailing 19-8 with a little less than 11 minutes to play in the first half, Michigan State started to get things going on the offensive end. It began with a layup from Bridges followed by a Langford 3-pointer. After a quick Miami bucket, the Spartans scored the next eight to tie the score at 21 and took their first lead, 25-23, on a drive to the lane and layup from Alvin Ellis.
MSU freshman Joshua Langford scored 13 in win over Miami
The Spartans kept pushing from there, getting a three-point play from Ward, a 3-pointer from Cassius Winston and a layup from Ward. Winston made a pair of free throws and Ellis capped the scoring with a three-point play to put Michigan State up 11 heading to the locker room.
“I thought their defense really picked up and they started to beat us to some of those 50/50 balls,” Miami coach Jim Larranaga said. “And then second, I think I made a critical decision, we went from the zone to man to man, feeling like at some point we're going to have to play it man to man, and I wanted to see how we would do. And once we did, Nick Ward came back into the game and really got it going.
“And then once the momentum shifted from our side, I mean I thought we played very well the first ten minutes — to their side, and they basically totally controlled the last ten minutes of the half and then were able to keep that control throughout the second half.”
Ja’Quan Newton scored 16 for Miami (21-12) while Davon Reed added 12 and Bruce Brown scored 11.
But once Michigan State grabbed that momentum, there was little Miami could do.
Michigan State kept pouring it on in the second half and had the lead up to 49-32 when Langford scored nine of 11 points. The lead grew to 23 on an Ellis layup as the Spartans were never threatened the rest of the way.
“We haven’t accomplished the world yet and at Michigan State winning a tournament game isn’t a big deal,” Izzo said. “But there is a process to this whole thing and I kept sticking to it. We did get better the last 10, 12 games and it didn’t always end up in wins.
“It was fun to see a bunch of guys with their character, getting down like that and bouncing back. That showed something about their DNA and showed something about what they’ve been through. Sometimes the adversity kills you and sometimes you rise up. I think in the last month this team has risen up. That was a hell of a performance against a damn good team. They’re a good defensive team and they had some weapons and I think we played our best.”
9 Michigan State vs. 1 Kansas
When: Sunday, 5:15 p.m.
Where: BOK Center, Tulsa, Okla.
TV / radio: CBS / WJR 760
Records: Michigan State 20-14, Kansas 29-4
At stake: Spot in Midwest Regional semifinals against Purdue-Iowa State winner.
Miles Bridges scored 18 in MSU's win over Miami and will now face close friend Josh Jackson and Kansas in second round