Michigan State pounds Northern Illinois to close nonconference play
East Lansing — Cassius Winston’s stat line looked pretty good on Saturday.
The Michigan State point guard scored 24 points on 8-for-10 shooting, nailing six of his seven 3-point attempts while handing out seven assists without a turnover.
All of that was great as the junior helped No. 8 Michigan State close out nonconference play with an 88-60 victory over Northern Illinois at Breslin Center.
But that’s not what Winston or his coach, Tom Izzo, were talking about afterward. Instead, it was the defense Winston played on NIU’s Eugene German, who entered the game averaging 21 points a game for the Huskies. German finished with 20, but he was 2-for-10 in the first half and got most of his points late in the game thanks, in large part, to a couple of deep, contested 3-pointers.
“Cassius has 24 points and shoots like he did and has seven assists and no turnover,” Izzo said. “And believe it or not; give German credit, he’s a hell of a player, but he worked for every point he got. And something happened that hasn’t happened here before and that was Cassius really took the challenge (defensively).
“I thought, in the second half when (German) made two 3s late the maddest guy in arena was Cassius, and that’s a big positive. I was really proud of what he did, how he played, how he made (German) work for his shots.”
It hasn’t exactly been a secret that the only thing keeping Winston from becoming an elite player is consistent defense. It’s taken some time, but defense was on Winston’s mind after the game, much more so than his offensive numbers.
“Definitely the defensive end,” Winston said. “That’s one of my weaknesses, the one thing I’ve had to develop over time and today was a good test to see how far I’ve come.”
Whether it holds up when Big Ten play resumes next week with a visit from Northwestern on Wednesday remains to be seen. What’s clear is that Winston was the best player on the floor on Saturday.
He had some help, too, as Kenny Goins added 12 points for the Spartans (11-2, 2-0 Big Ten) with Nick Ward scoring 11 and grabbing seven rebounds. Xavier Tillman pulled down a game-high 13 rebounds as 13 of the 16 Michigan State players who played scored.
“Typical Coach Izzo team,” said Northern Illinois coach Mark Montgomery, the former Michigan State player and assistant. “Well polished. They’ll compete for the Big Ten. They’ll compete for the national championship again. We tried to battle. Credit Michigan State’s defense. We just missed some shots we always make, but they share the ball, they defend, they rebound and their ranking is very deserving.”
German’s 20 points led Northern Illinois (7-6) while Levi Bradley chipped in 13 for the Huskies. Lacey James grabbed 10 rebounds.
It didn’t take long for Winston to get going as he and the Spartans got off to a quick start. Winston made his first four 3-pointers as the Spartans jumped to an eight-point lead in the first three minutes. Northern Illinois quickly trimmed it to 12-8, but the Spartans responded with a 14-2 run to take control midway through the opening half.
Eight Spartans scored in the first half, with Winston getting 14 as they closed the half with a 10-2 run, including a mid-range jumper at the buzzer from Tillman that gave Michigan State a 43-19 lead at the break.
While Michigan State was shooting well from long distance, Northern Illinois missed all eight of its 3-pointers. The Huskies were just 8-for-34 overall with German missing eight of his 10 shots thanks to the defense of Winston.
“He’s a really good player, does good job finding his shot and knocking down shots,” Winston said. “I just had to be solid and force him into tough shots and rely on my help a little bit. I relied on my guys to bail me out a couple times, but I just had to stay solid.”
The Spartans continued to pull away in the second half, pushing the lead to 29 late in the game after a 3-pointer by Matt McQuaid. Michigan State finished the game 14-for-29 from 3-point range while Northern Illinois was 6-for-15 in the second half after being shut out from long range in the first half.
The Spartans also continued to do a good job sharing the ball, handing out 25 assists on 29 made baskets.
“The exciting part of the day was Cassius all around,” Izzo said, “but the defense almost more than the offense. And the 25 assists on 29 baskets is part of our identity right now.”