MSU's Cassius Winston, Xavier Tillman talk about the win over Minnesota Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
East Lansing — Michigan State needed to be Michigan State again, and to do that, it needed its best players to not just be good, but to be great.
Tom Izzo didn’t shy away from it this week as the ninth-ranked Spartans were mired in a three-game losing skid — for Michigan State to turn things around it needed all it could get from Cassius Winston and Nick Ward.
He challenged his best players and they responded. The junior tandem, along with senior guard Matt McQuaid, combined to lead Michigan State to a 79-55 victory over Minnesota on Saturday at the Breslin Center.
It kept Michigan State (19-5, 10-3 Big Ten) one game out of first place in the conference and happened in front of Magic Johnson and the 1979 national championship team that was celebrating its 40th anniversary.
“Those are the best two players on this team,” Izzo said. “But our best players can’t just play good and sometimes can’t just play great. You lose a guy like Josh (Langford), a guy like Kenny (Goins), they’ve got to play at a level maybe they’ve never been at and I think they both understand that. It’s been a grind and they grinded this week, if that’s a word.
“It was fun to watch them play today. It was fun to look over and see elderly men now, 40 years past their prime, jumping up and down like college kids. That makes my day.”
Ward was coming off the Illinois game on Tuesday when he was pulled from the starting lineup and grabbed a single rebound. He responded by scoring 22 points and pulling down nine rebounds while McQuaid added 18 points and eight assists. Winston scored 11 points and dished out nine assists — eight in the second half — after playing only seven minutes in the first half because of foul trouble.
Goins, the team’s leading rebounder, injured his left elbow in the first half. He returned briefly but sat the rest of the game. X-rays on the elbow showed no break, Izzo said.
For Ward, it was a return to the dominant post player he had been for most of the season until Michigan State’s three-game slide.
“I just had to go back to being Nick Ward and play the game the way I know how,” Ward said. “The crowd helped me, as well as my teammates and coaches, and that was a big part on why we got back in the win column.”
As important as Ward’s points were, it was the rebounding that was the biggest key. He’d only grabbed 10 rebounds in the last three games total, making his production vital on Saturday. It’s what allowed Michigan State to score 20 fast-break points while the defense was as good as it’s been.
McQuaid was able to put it all together, holding Minnesota’s leading scorer Amir Coffey to four points and getting 18 of his own.
“It felt good,” McQuaid said. “We got back to what we do which is defend, rebound and run. We haven't been doing that the previous games, and tonight I felt we did a really good job at doing all three. We helped each other out and played Michigan State defense.”
It was clear the Golden Gophers (16-8, 6-7) had trouble adjusting. Coffey didn’t get in the box score until a dunk on the break with a little more than eight minutes to play and Jordan Murphy was held to just five points and six rebounds. Gabe Kalscheur scored 14 to lead the Golden Gophers (16-8, 6-7), who have now lost three straight. Daniel Oturu added 12 points for Minnesota.
“I think we're easy to guard right now all around,” Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said. “We've got to be able to knock down shots. We've got to be able to go outside and we're not doing that right now.”
It didn’t take long for the Spartans to show things had change, taking control early in the game, opening a 21-5 lead on Minnesota behind Ward, who was tough to stop early. The junior big man scored 10 points and grabbed eight rebounds in the opening half to make up for the fact Winston sat with two fouls and Goins was out.
Minnesota chipped away, however, with a 9-1 run to pull within single digits. But Michigan State got some big minutes from freshman Thomas Kithier, who scored 6 in the opening half, while McQuaid had 10 in the first 20 minutes. Coffey, the Gophers’ leading scorer, was held without a point in the first half as Minnesota shot 8-for-26 from the field.
Michigan State got a spark to open the second half as Winston returned and got the Spartans’ transition game going, feeding Ward for a dunk in the first minute then scoring himself on a drive to the hoop to open a 41-24 lead and force the Gophers to take a timeout.
The lead grew to 64-38 on a McQuaid 3-pointer, but Minnesota scored nine straight from that point to at least make the game interesting in the final minutes, but the Gophers could never grab the momentum.
“I’m proud of my team, my staff because it wasn’t a lot of fun around here this week,” Izzo said. “I told them that because we worked so hard they deserved to have some fun today.”