Detroit — For a brief moment Friday night, Cassius Winston was a fan.
It was midway through the second half of Michigan State’s first-round NCAA Tournament game against Bucknell at Little Caesars Arena and the Spartans guard was starting to float back down the court on defense after a shot from Nick Ward bounced off the rim.
But that’s when — virtually out of nowhere — Miles Bridges soared through the air and sent the ball back through the rim with a one-handed dunk that had the crowd heavy with Spartan fans on their feet.
“Did you see that play?” Winston said after the game. “That tip dunk, that was crazy. Anything like that, it’s almost worth, like, six points in a way. That was crazy. It brought energy to the crowd, to the team and on the bench. Plays like that are how you win games.”
Plays like that are what Bridges can bring, and it’s that sort of play his coach has been trying to coax out of the superstar all season.
It turns out it came at just the right time as Bridges scored 10 points in that stretch to break open a tight game and lead third-seeded Michigan State to an 82-78 victory over 14-seeded Bucknell at Little Caesars Arena and send the Spartans to a second-round game at approximately 2:40 p.m. Sunday against Syracuse in the Midwest Regional. Syracuse, the 11 seed, beat No. 6 TCU, 57-52, in the final game on Friday.
“I did get on Miles. I got on him at halftime,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “But, boy, we started running some stuff from him and he started answering the bell, one after the other, and the tip dunk kind of typified it. And so I think we're making some progress. We took a step forward. There's no question about that.”
Tom Izzo discusses Michigan State's win over Bucknell. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
Bridges finished with 29 points while grabbing nine rebounds and handing out four assists for the Spartans (30-4). Joshua Langford was the catalyst early, scoring 15 of his 22 points in the first half. Cassius Winston scored 11 and handed out 10 assists.
“I knew in order for us to get a big lead I’d have to play well,” Bridges said. “I knew that started on the defensive end and once I got my defense going my offense got going. It was just me being more aggressive. I was passive a little bit (in the first half), was making good passes, but needed to score the ball.”
As Izzo said, he got on his star sophomore at halftime, and when the Spartans came out from the break they overcame a scary injury to Ward and foul trouble for Jaren Jackson Jr. by going to their star, who scored 19 in the second half.
“I knew if we did better on the defensive end our offense would get going,” Bridges said. “Coach kept calling back-to-back plays for me and the team was executing.”
Bucknell (25-10) didn’t make it easy for the Spartans. Senior Zach Thomas scored 27 points, 20 of those coming in the first half. However, he got in foul trouble and when he was called for a technical foul with 6:06 to play, that gave him five personal fouls and he was done.
Cassius Winston, Miles Bridges and Joshua Langford meet the media after Michigan State's win over Bucknell on Friday. Matt Charboneau, Detroit News
Stephen Brown scored 20 and Kimbal Mackenzie chipped in 10 points for the champions of the Patriot League, who hit four 3-pointers late but couldn’t overcome a deficit that was 15 with two minutes to play.
“Gotta give our guys a lot of credit for the way they played, the poise we played with,” Bucknell coach Nathan Davis said. “But at the same time, give Michigan State a lot of credit. I thought they played well. Every game you go into, you say if you're going to get beat you want the other team to just play better than you did. And I think that was certainly the case today. I don't think our guys have anything to hang their heads over. It's certainly disappointing when you don't advance, but again give Michigan State a lot of credit for the way they played.”
Early on, Michigan State was getting the shots it wanted and used that offensive execution to jump out to a 23-12 lead with 10 minutes left in the half after a 3-pointer from Langford. But Bucknell answered by hitting its share of tough shots as Thomas scored seven straight and the Bison used a 14-4 run to take their first lead at 28-27 on a 3-pointer from Thomas with 5:24 to play in the half.
The Spartans had their own answer as Winston scored seven straight and Bridges hit a 3-pointer to give Michigan State a 39-31 lead. But after the teams exchanged buckets, the Bison chipped away once again. A 7-0 spurt cut Michigan State’s lead to one before Bridges converted a three-point play to give the Spartans a 44-40 lead.
Michigan State picked up the momentum early in the second half, extending its lead to 52-43. However, after scoring four quick points, Jackson was whistled for his third foul and early in the half, Ward hit his head on the floor. He came out of the game but stayed on the bench and returned several minutes later, apparently no worse for the wear.
After the Bison got three free throws from Thomas, Bridges hit a jumper and Ward converted in transition to put the Spartans ahead, 56-46, with 11:14 to play. From there it was all Bridges as Michigan State led by 18 late in the second half. A flurry of 3-pointers from Bucknell in the final minute forced the Spartans to clinch the game at the free-throw line.
“I thought everybody stepped up and it’s kind of a shame they hit all those 3s at the end, but at the same time give them credit. They made some shots,” Izzo said. “I thought for the most part the second half we played very, very well even defensively. And I thought offensively we moved the ball very well and even missed some good shots.
“Considering the layoff, I thought we were pretty sharp in maybe 30 minutes of the game but when we weren't sharp, it was really disappointing how we — it wasn't one mistake, it was like three and four, and that's got to change if we're going to be moving on.”