Michigan State doesn't cave after Ohio State's run, showing 'we've grown a lot'
When Michigan State walked off the court Saturday at Value City Arena as the first half against Ohio State came to a close, there was a familiar feeling.
Just a year earlier the Spartans watched as Ohio State rattled off 12 straight points, capped by a near half-court heave from former Michigan guard Andrew Dakich. The wave continued in the second half as Ohio State blew out the then-No. 1 ranked Spartans.
While not quite as overwhelming on Saturday, the Buckeyes again exploded in the final two minutes, outscoring Michigan State by eight points to turn a one-point deficit into a seven-point lead.
The crowd was on fire and the eighth-ranked Spartans headed to the locker room looking for answers.
That’s right about where the similarities end and the idea that this season’s Michigan State team, while not as individually talented, might just be a better team than last year’s.
Even if Michigan State coach Tom Izzo isn’t so sure about that notion, what he and everyone else saw was a veteran team that wasn’t overwhelmed by the moment. Instead, junior guard Cassius Winston took the challenge Izzo presented him in the locker room and took off. He scored 18 of his 25 points in the second half to go with an outstanding effort from junior big man Nick Ward, who scored 21 and made 11 of 14 free throws.
The result led to Michigan State closing the game by outscoring Ohio State, 15-5, on its way to an 86-77 victory to remain unbeaten in the Big Ten.
“Coach got into us a little bit, but we needed it,” Ward said. “We needed to wake up and see that we can't have the same result as last year.”
Getting after players at halftime is one thing, and Izzo definitely got on his point guard.
“Coach has got his mode of how he comes at you,” Winston said.
How that player responds is what truly matters, and Winston responded in a way that didn’t often happen in his first two seasons with the Spartans.
“When you challenge people and those people respond, that’s probably the most satisfying part of my job,” Izzo said. “And Cassius did an unbelievable job in the second half.”
While Ward was good the entire game — that, alone, a big development considering how poorly he played in the last two games near his hometown — Winston was simply a guy on the court in the first 20 minutes.
All that changed after Ohio State took an eight-point lead early in the second half. Winston started to attack, getting to the basket for three layups while capping 11 points in the first nine minutes with a 3-pointer that gave the Spartans a 58-57 lead.
For Winston, it was simply an example of how different this season’s team is from last season when future lottery picks Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr. were on the court.
“We’ve grown a lot,” Winston said. “We’ve learned that (Izzo) wants the bet for you and he’ll push you to be the best you can be and that’s how I went out and played.”
It wasn’t all Winston, of course. He and Ward were the catalysts, but the big plays were spread around. Junior Kyle Ahrens had a drive and dunk in the second half then a huge offensive rebound and put-back in the final minutes. Senior Kenny Goins had his struggles, but his layup with 3:39 to play put Michigan State up three and after he turned the ball over on an inbounds play in the final minute, he stole the inbounds pass from Ohio State just seconds later and then made two free throws.
Even freshman Aaron Henry had some big plays in critical moments, include the dish to Goins for the late layup while hitting two free throws with 1:07 to play.
All of this happened without guard Joshua Langford, who missed his second game because of an injury to his left ankle.
It was the sort of response Michigan State (13-2, 4-0 Big Ten) didn’t have a year ago at Ohio State. Still, just four games into a 20-game Big Ten schedule, Izzo isn’t anointing his team.
“We’re not a better team than last year, don’t kid yourselves,” Izzo said. “Can we become one? Maybe.”
Maybe it’s because he simply doesn’t want his team to let the success go to its head. It’s a legitimate concern, especially how well last year’s team played in the regular season only to lose two of three to close the season and lead to an early NCAA Tournament exit.
Izzo did point out in today’s world dominated by social media that it’s tougher for players to remain focused, and Langford’s status makes things less certain. But that doesn’t change the fact this team showed something on Saturday it didn’t last season. Championship teams win games like the one at Ohio State, and Michigan State looked the part.
“(Last year) we didn’t know how to make winning plays,” Winston said.
They made plenty against the Buckeyes, enough to start believing in this team.