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Matt Charboneau on MSU's win at Rutgers to open Big Ten play The Detroit News

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Piscataway, N.J. – Just shy of one year ago, Nick Ward sat in the visitors locker room at the Rutgers Athletic Center, trying to find the words to explain why he sat nearly the entire second half of Michigan State’s victory as he and coach Tom Izzo were hardly seeing eye-to-eye.

On Friday night following the Big Ten opener, Ward stood just a few feet from that spot and laughed about what his goal was coming into the game.

“The only thing that was on my mind about last year was I was not sitting right there,” Ward said, glancing over to the spot on the locker room bench he occupied last season. “That was the only thing.”

It turned out to be the right approach as Ward scored 20 points and grabbed five rebounds to help No. 9 Michigan State earn a 78-67 victory over Rutgers.

BOX SCORE: Michigan State 78, Rutgers 67

“Those of you that were here last year when I wanted to leave him here,” Izzo explained. “What a great turnaround, and you know what? That kid played his butt off tonight. He stayed down (defensively), he defended well. Like I said, Nick Ward has been really, really good and had two really bad games. One was the first half at Louisville and the second was the first half vs. Kansas. But he has been more focused and did some good things.

“He’s doing some better things defensively and he’s getting up on those ball screens and we went to him. We said we were going to him and Josh (Langford) and that’s what we did and Cash (Cassius Winton) filled in.”

Winston scored 22 and had six assists for the Spartans (6-2, 1-0 Big Ten), Langford scored 14 and Xavier Tillman scored 11 as Michigan State played without senior guard Matt McQuaid for the second straight game. Winston added six assists while Tillman had eight rebounds.

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MSU coach Tom Izzo on win over Rutgers The Detroit News

Eugene Omoruyi scored 16 for Rutgers (5-2, 0-1). Peter Kiss added 11 points and Geo Baker scored 10 for the Scarlet Knights.

“This was a big win for us, playing against a good, quality, tough team,” Izzo said. “I consider this as we beat a good team, a good program, in a tough place to play. We’ll enjoy it probably the two-hour ride home and then prepare for another game Monday.”

That next game will be at home against Iowa, but the first step in conference play was beating a Rutgers team that was coming off a road victory over Miami (Florida) on Wednesday. And Ward was a big reason.

He had 10 points at halftime, then scored the first six points of the second half as a 12-1 MSU run started to break open a close game as Rutgers refused to double-team the 6-foot-8 junior.

“It made me more aggressive,” Ward said. “I’m going right at ’em. I wanted to make them wish they would have doubled me.”

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The defense on Ward mattered little early in the game. Rutgers opened an 18-10 lead as Baker hit a pair of deep 3-pointers along with two from Kiss. But the Spartans answered with a 9-0 run to grab their first lead at 19-18 before pulling back ahead, 25-23, on a drive and layup from Tillman.

It was back-and-forth the rest of the half as Rutgers kept possessions alive by grabbing nine offensive rebounds in the first half and the Spartans turned to Winston, who scored seven of Michigan State’s final nine points in the half, the last three on a deep 3-pointer at the end of the shot clock to give the Spartans a 39-37 lead at the break.

Michigan State had all the momentum early in the second half thanks to the run sparked by Ward. The lead eventually was extended to 59-46, but a six-point trip for Rutgers got the Scarlet Knights back in the game. Baker hit a jumper, and on the shot, MSU’s Kyle Ahrens was called for a flagrant foul. Rutgers hit two free throws then got a putback dunk to trim its deficit to 59-52.

A 3-pointer from Issa Thiam narrowed the margin to 63-57, but the Spartans scored the next five, including a three-point play from Winston to push the lead to 68-57 with 4:22 to play. A 3-pointer from Winston put MSU up 71-57 with 3:40 to play and the Spartans salted from there.

“(The win) says that we know how to come together and use momentum as a team, rely on our chemistry and pull together a win, especially in an environment like this, very hostile," Izzo said. "Rutgers, their fans did a good job of coming to support them and making it very hard even to play in. It speaks volumes for how we came out and won the game and how we’re growing together.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter @mattcharboneau

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