Tillman does his part and a bit more in Spartans victory

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Xavier Tillman of the Michigan State Spartans shoots the ball while defended by Montez Mathis of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights in the first half.

East Lansing — The morning after Nick Ward had surgery on his broken left hand and it was clear the Michigan State center would be out of the lineup for an extended period, coach Tom Izzo gathered his team.

He had a simple message — the Spartans weren’t going to be able to replace Ward’s 15.3 points and seven rebounds a game with one player. Instead, it was going to take a little bit from everyone if Michigan State expected to stay in the hunt for a Big Ten championship and a high seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Xavier Tillman took that to heart and then added a little more for good measure.

The sophomore big man scored a career-high 19 points while grabbing 10 rebounds on Wednesday to help No. 10 Michigan State recover from a rough first half and rally past Rutgers for a 71-60 victory at Breslin Center.

“The coaches did a really good job of telling us, telling me that it’s gonna come from little parts,” Tillman said. “Not one person is gonna step up and take all those points and rebounds. Everyone is gonna have to do a little more. Coach told me I need to get 12 points and 10 rebounds right now. Kenny (Goins), the same thing. Everybody has to step up a little bit more.”

Everybody did against the Scarlet Knights. Winston had 28 points, almost 10 higher than his average, while Matt McQuaid scored 11 and Goins grabbed 12 rebounds.

But it was Tillman who stood out, surpassing his scoring average by nearly 11 points and besting his rebounding production by three.

“He just played phenomenal,” Goins said. “He had this fire in his eye and was ready for the challenge. I don’t think anybody put it on themselves tonight more than he did, and it showed tonight. He stepped up in a lot of different ways.”

Fifteen of Tillman’s points came in the second half as Michigan State (22-5, 13-3 Big Ten) used a 20-3 run to pull ahead and put the game away. Tillman’s layup sparked that run and came after he scored the Spartans’ first six points of the second half. His layup with 3:41 to play put Michigan State up 62-46, its largest lead.

“Well Xavier, I never worry about Xavier,” Izzo said. “I mean he's one of the toughest guys on my team. He makes his free throws, he gets ten rebounds, his defense is unbelievable, he's very good defensively.”

Entering the game, Tillman had been doing those things for a little more than 21 minutes a game. Those minutes were bound to increase with the absence of Ward and when freshman Thomas Kithier got in early foul trouble on Wednesday, that clinched it.

By the time the game was done, Tillman had played just more than 33 minutes, matching his career high.

“I was really concerned if Xavier could go from 22 minutes to into the 30's,” Izzo said. “He played 33. Twice he pulled the jersey to come out. Once I agreed and once I told him to take a hike. 'I can't take you out my man.'

“I think we're learning. Our staff's gotta continue to do a better job, and we will. We're gonna find a way to get a little more time.”

That time will almost certainly include Tillman getting the bulk of the playing time as long as Ward is out.

“I’ve been putting in a lot of work this summer and this fall,” Tillman said. “I’m still, right now, putting in a lot of work. I just trust all the work I put in and let it showcase itself."

Laughing matter

At one point in the second half, as Michigan State was in the middle of the run that would help it overtake Rutgers, there was a possession that had Cassius Winston laughing.

The Spartans trailed, 40-37, and by the time the possession ended, the score was tied, and Michigan State added four offensive rebounds to its total. Freshman Aaron Henry grabbed three while Goins had the other.

The final rebound from Henry was kicked back out to Winston, who for a brief second thought about lofting a 3-pointer but hesitated and started to laugh. He then found McQuaid for a 3-pointer from the wing to tie the score.

“Yeah, just a lot of momentum and a lot of fun,” Winston said. “It felt like you could throw it at the rim and you’re gonna get it back. I was gonna shoot a bad 3, that’s why I was laughing. I’m like, ‘Nah, let me go ahead and pull it out.’ Then Quaido hit the shot. It was a lot of fun.”

Back pains

Junior Kyle Ahrens took a couple of hard falls on Wednesday, the latter one with 2:54 to play in the second half forcing him to the bench for the rest of the game.

Ahrens has been battling a bad back for the better part of the last two months. When he checks out of the game, Ahrens typically gets a large heating pad placed on his lower back.

Asked after the game if Ahrens aggravated the injury, Izzo said he did but didn’t have many details.

“Yep,” Izzo said. “I don't know anymore. I tried to put him back in, couldn't go back in.”


Twitter: @mattcharboneau