Matt Charboneau discusses Michigan State's win over Rutgers. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
East Lansing — Michigan State flirted with disaster on Wednesday night at Breslin Center, but in the long run, the Spartans might have gained more than just an overtime victory.
They got that, overcoming some tense moments to outlast Rutgers, 76-72, in front of what became a raucous crowd in the final minutes thanks to a huge 3-pointer from Joshua Langford in the final minute of overtime on a dish from Cassius Winston.
The longer-lasting benefit, however, could be the fact the Spartans — for the first time this season — found themselves in a back-and-forth battle in the final minutes and found a way to get a win.
“We’ve won a lot of games by 20, 30 points,” Winston said. “To have a game like this where each possession counts coming down the wire is big for this team because you don’t want it to but that’s the nature of the game. We’re gonna be in that position more than a few times this year, so we just want to be able to come out of those with victories.”
Michigan State (16-2, 4-1 Big Ten) got the victory thanks to 17 points and 10 rebounds from Nick Ward, who played a season-high 34 minutes and was called the “best player on the floor” by coach Tom Izzo because of his ball-screen defense.
“It is so, so, so much better than last year,” Izzo said, also praising the way freshman Jaren Jackson Jr. defended. “Our bigs did a better job than our guards.”
Jackson added 16 points for No. 4 Michigan State while Langford and Winston had 12 points each and Miles Bridges scored 11, all in the second half.
“We haven’t been in a close game,” Izzo said. “I thought we responded pretty well and ran stuff pretty good. We had defended well most of the game then didn’t defend well down the stretch. … But we find a way to win and probably our team deserves more credit.”
Coach Tom Izzo addresses the media after Michigan State's overtime win over Rutgers. Matt Charboneau, Detroit News
It was a struggle, to say the least, as the Scarlet Knights (11-7, 1-4) nearly got their first win over the Spartans after pushing Michigan State to the brink in December. Corey Sanders scored 22 for Rutgers while Deshawn Freeman scored 15.
Sanders had a chance to win the game at the end of regulation, but his shot rolled off the rim at the buzzer.
“Bridges is a real good player and they have a lot of weapons,” Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell said. “If you load up too much on one guy, you’ve got a lot of other guys out there. You’ve got the best 3-point shooter in the league in Winston, you’ve got one of the best mid-range guys in Langford, you’ve got the best rim runner in the league in Nick Ward, so they pose a lot of problems. You can’t just hone in on one, you’ve got to play well against all of them.”
The Scarlet Knights did well to check them all after Michigan State started quickly, jumping to a 14-2 lead on a 3-pointer from Matt McQuaid with 14:42 to play in the first half.
Michigan State's players talk about the overtime win over Rutgers. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
But things dried up quickly from there as the Spartans made just two baskets over the next 12-plus minutes. The drought allowed Rutgers to close the deficit to three points before a Jackson jump hook followed by a 3-pointer from Lourawls Nairn got things moving in the right direction late in the half. Winston capped Michigan State’s first-half scoring with a traditional three-point play as the Spartans took a 32-25 lead into halftime.
The Spartans started slowly in the second half but managed to extend their lead to 37-27 when Langford’s drive to the hoop was goaltended with just more than 17 minutes to play. The Scarlet Knights responded with a 12-2 run to tie the score at 39 on a 3-pointer from Geo Baker with 9:55 to play and it was back and forth the rest of the way.
The Spartans started to pull away late, but a 3-pointer from Freeman brought Rutgers to within 57-55 with two minutes to play followed by two free throws from Freeman after a Michigan State turnover to tie the score at 57 with 1:29 left.
Jackson split a pair of free throws with 1:13 left to put Michigan State up one but Sanders nailed a jumper with just less than a minute to play to give Rutgers a one-point lead, its first of the game. After an MSU turnover, the Spartans got a stop and Bridges was fouled with eight seconds to play. He split the free throws to tie the score at 59. Sanders got off a contested shot at the buzzer but it bounced out to force overtime.
“We just had to play hard like we did the last five minutes of the game,” Bridges said. “We were struggling in the early part of the game but once we got going in the end we just told ourselves we need to play like that to win the game."
Bridges opened overtime with a 3-pointer and Jackson had a pair of free throws, but Sanders scored four points for the Scarlet Knights to keep them within one at 64-63. After another MSU turnover, Mike Williams put back a Rutgers miss, then Ward split a pair of free throws to tie the score at 65 with 2:13 left in overtime.
Michigan State went ahead by two on a pair of Ward free throws but Sanders answered with a runner with 1:19 to play to tie the score at 67.
That’s when Winston found Langford in the corner for the decisive 3-pointer that gave the Spartans a 70-67 lead with 56.9 seconds left in overtime. Winston then went 6-for-6 from the free-throw line to put the game away.
“It felt good,” Langford said. “I really wanted to help my team win, whatever it was. Cassius made a great pass. I’ve shot that shot so many times, I just felt like I was gonna make that shot.”
And now Michigan State gets ready for Michigan to come to town on Saturday unhappy with its overall play but feeling like it’s more battle-tested.
“It will definitely help us down the line,” Langford said. “Those are the games you have in the NCAA Tournament and the Big Ten tournament, as well. It shows maturity to be able finish close games like this.”