Seniors star in Michigan State's romp over Nebraska; Michigan up next with Big Ten title on line

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Kenny Goins (25) of the Michigan State Spartans takes a shot over Brady Heiman (45) of the Nebraska Cornhuskers during the first half Tuesday. Goins finished with a career of 24 points in MSU's 91-76 victory.

East Lansing — When Kenny Goins came walking out of Michigan State’s locker room at halftime Tuesday night, someone asked the Spartans fifth-year senior what is career-high was.

“I’m like, ‘This,’” Goins said laughing.

Just 20 minutes into No. 9 Michigan State’s matchup with Nebraska at the Breslin Center, Goins had already scored 21, which eclipsed his career best by two points. He’d also made all five of his 3-pointers and had the Spartans in control.

BOX SCORE: Michigan State 91, Nebraska 76

In the second half, Goins was joined by fellow senior Matt McQuaid as each established career bests in scoring to lead Michigan State to a 91-76 victory. The win was big, but it proved even bigger less than an hour later as Purdue lost at Minnesota, creating a three-way tie atop the Big Ten with one game left.

The Spartans (24-6, 15-4 Big Ten) will host Michigan in the regular-season finale at 8 p.m. Saturday. The winner will earn at least a share of the Big Ten title and the No. 1 seed in next week’s conference tournament.

“You can set up those games at the end of the year and all that,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “It’s unbelievable. I think it’s unbelievable for our university, theirs, and unbelievable for the Big Ten.”

Before that, though, Michigan State’s bounce-back from Saturday’s loss at Indiana was all on the seniors. Goins finished with 24 points, hitting a career-high six 3-pointers after going 5-for-5 in the first half and scoring 21 in the opening 20 minutes. McQuaid scored a career-best 22 and was 4-for-5 from 3-point range for the Spartans while freshman Aaron Henry added a career-high 15 points. Xavier Tillman chipped in 11 points and eight rebounds while Cassius Winston scored eight points and handed out 10 assists.

“Our seniors are supposed to do this,” Izzo said. “Kenny did a good job tonight and hit some shots. … McQuaid, every game we play means so much (to him). You can see him in the locker room, see his eyes in huddles. It means the world to him.”

James Palmer scored 30 for Nebraska (15-15, 5-14) as the Cornhuskers cut a 20-point deficit to seven in the second half before Michigan State pulled away. Glynn Watson Jr. added 25 for the Huskers while Isaiah Roby chipped in 10.

It was clear from the jump that Goins was going to be a major factor in the game as he hit two straight 3-pointers to open the scoring for Michigan State. Later in the half, it was Goins’ two free throws that sparked a 19-2 surge as the Spartans turned a 12-11 deficit into a 30-14 lead after McQuaid hit on of his three first-half triples.

The Spartans were 9-for-14 from 3-point range in the opening half as both Goins and McQuaid were perfect as Goins nailed five and McQuaid had three.

“You grow up as a kid watching all these games this time of year and it’s time to step up for everybody,” McQuaid said. “It’s crazy to think about (having only one home game left). I’m taking in every second right now, enjoying the win and worrying about the next team tomorrow.”

Palmer did his best to keep the Cornhuskers in the game, scoring 14 in the first half while Watson added 10. However, the Huskers had few answers for Michigan State’s shooting and trailed, 47-29, at halftime.

After Henry hit a pair of free throws to open the second half to go ahead by 20, Nebraska started to slowly chip away at the Spartans’ advantage. A three-point play from Palmer cut the margin to 60-50 with 13:23 to play before the Huskers got to within 62-55 after Roby split a pair of free throws.

McQuaid took over from there, scoring five of the next seven points as Michigan State had a five-point possession to push the lead to 69-55 with 10:31 to play after a Nebraska flagrant foul.

The lead grew to 19 late in the half before Michigan State sealed the game in the final minutes.

“We’ve been kind of calling it senior week,” Goins said. “Between me and McQuaid it looked like we were both ready to play, for sure.”

It was a better showing for Nebraska, which got blown out in its last game at Michigan, a game that saw coach Tim Miles bench three of his starters in the second half.

“There’s playing hard and then there’s playing hard and playing well,” Miles said. “We have to be able to do both. I thought we did a lot of things right tonight. You look at the Michigan game and that was such a disappointment. We’ve got to have more, and I thought tonight we did.

“There are no moral victories, but at the same time we fought back.”

Michigan State fought back, too. From the disappointment of Saturday’s loss and now they hope to take advantage of some help from Minnesota.

If the seniors play like they did on Tuesday, the showdown with Michigan could yield a championship.

“I'd say it's a great way to start senior week,” McQuaid said. “For me, my teammates were just finding me. Kenny was finding me, Cash was finding me, Foster (Loyer) was and just a lot of different guys finding me so a lot of credit to them. Kenny shot really good, too. He had a heck of a game.”

Big Ten title picture

Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue are all 15-4 in the Big Ten with one conference game remaining in the regular season.

Michigan: Will earn the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten tournament and at least a share of the Big Ten regular-season championship by defeating Michigan State on Saturday night (8 p.m., ESPN).

Michigan State: Will earn the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten tournament and at least a share of the Big Ten regular-season championship by defeating Michigan on Saturday night.

Purdue: Plays at Northwestern on Saturday (2:30 p.m., BTN). If Northwestern wins, the Michigan-Michigan State winner claims the outright Big Ten championship.

If Purdue wins, the Boliermakers share the Big Ten title with the UM-MSU winner. If that winner is UM, then UM earns the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten tournament based on a 1-0 head-to-head record over Purdue. If that winner is MSU, then MSU earns the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten tournament based on a 2-0 record over Michigan. (The head-to-head tiebreaker is skipped since MSU and Purdue split their regular-season series 1-1.)

Twitter: @mattcharboneau