Nick Ward's double-double smoothes rocky road win for Michigan State

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Michigan State's Nick Ward (44) shoots over Penn State's Mike Watkins (24) during the first half Sunday. Ward finished with 16 points and 11 rebounds in the Spartans' 71-56 victory.

State College, Pa. — For the better part of the last few weeks, Tom Izzo has resisted any suggestion that this year’s Michigan State team is better than last year’s, even after losing a pair of NBA Lottery picks.

But having won nine straight entering Sunday’s game, it was getting harder for Izzo to make his case.

Even after a victory, though, the Spartans coach had plenty of ammunition by Sunday evening as No. 6 Michigan State had one of its sloppiest efforts in weeks but still managed to earn a 71-56 victory over Penn State at the Bryce Jordan Center.

BOX SCORE: Michigan State 71, Penn State 56

Nick Ward scored 16 points and grabbed 11 rebounds for the Spartans (15-2, 6-0 Big Ten) and Matt McQuaid chipped in 15 points. But junior guard Cassius Winston struggled, turning the ball over seven times while scoring 11 points on 3-for-7 shooting as Joshua Langford missed his fourth straight game with an ankle injury and Kyle Ahrens was back in East Lansing with a bad back.

“Maybe we’re all talking too much about how good we are,” Izzo said. “We’re not that good. And if (Winston) doesn’t play well we’re not very good at all. We just got to lead on them and some of those guys missed some shots early I’ve seen them make.”

The unique part for Michigan State was that the game was a chance to show that maximum effort is needed every game in the Big Ten, but the lesson came without suffering a defeat.  It was MSU's 10th straight win and 18th consecutive regular-season Big Ten win, matching a program record that dates to last season.

Much of that was because Michigan State continued to play well defensively, overcoming 17 turnovers.

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Lamar Stevens scored 20 to lead Penn State (7-10, 0-6) while Mike Watkins, Myles Dread and Josh Reaves each added 11 points for the Nittany Lions. Penn State was just 22-for-60 (.367) from the field and 5-for-22 (.227) on 3-pointers.

“The turnovers were a joke,” Izzo said. “The bright spots were I thought we rebounded the ball very, very well and I thought our bigs played physical and our guards played soft. The biggest disappointment was the ball movement and the turnovers. That was not very good.

“But it was a win. It was a good win on the road.”

Winston has been the catalyst all season for the Spartans, quickly moving himself into Big Ten player of the year discussion. However, something was off on Sunday.

“I was out of it,” Winston said. “I don’t know how to explain it. Just out of it from the beginning. I got some fouls and never really found a rhythm the whole game.”

It’s something that hasn’t happened often to the junior guard, which surprised Izzo but also made him realize that sometimes players have bad nights.

“I hate to say it, but I’ve given him credit for the whole season,” Izzo said. “I told Cash that was one of the worst games I’ve seen him play. … That was un-Cassius like, in two years. He sure as hell deserves a hall pass, but he can’t get many of them if we’re gonna be a real good team.”

Even with the offensive woes on Sunday, the Spartans still are one of the top defensive teams in the nation and that traveled, especially in the early going.

The Nittany Lions rarely got the ball on the block, often settling for deep 3-pointers. They made just 3 of 13 and were only 10-for-32 overall in the first half as the Spartans pushed the lead to 18 late in the half after an Aaron Henry dunk put them up, 37-19.

That came after Michigan State broke open a tie game early in the half, outscoring Penn State, 18-4, turning a 10-10 tie into a 28-14 lead. Much of it was due to Ward, Xavier Tillman and Kenny Goins dominating the glass. Michigan State grabbed nine offensive rebounds and got nine second-chance points.

Ward scored 12 and pulled down nine rebounds in 13 first-half minutes while Tillman had six rebounds and Goins five as Michigan State led, 40-24, at halftime.

“Every game is gonna be a tough game, every game is gonna be physical,” Ward said. “They know everything about you. They had a good scouting report and played us ways that were different.”

Penn State opened the second half chipping away at the deficit, trimming it to 43-33 after a Watkins jumper with 14:38 to play. The Nittany Lions took advantage of Ward and Winston both struggling with foul trouble. However, McQuaid responded with two straight 3-pointers to give the Spartans a 49-33 lead with 13:06 left in the game.

The Spartans continued to slowly pull away and after back-to-back 3s from Winston and McQuaid gave them a 63-42 lead with 6:40 to play, the game was effectively over, the fourth straight win at Penn State for Michigan State.

“We have to play better,” Izzo said. “We’ve been so worried about how much we practice because we got guys hurt. We rested ’em and I think they continued that rest right through this weekend.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau