No panic: Bradley puts Michigan State on upset alert but Spartans survive
Des Moines, Iowa — There’s no doubt that Michigan State fans — those at Wells Fargo Arena and certainly thousands more watching on television — were starting to have flashbacks on Thursday afternoon.
The Spartans, the No. 2 seed in the East Region of the NCAA Tournament, were in a dogfight with No. 15 Bradley and memories of three years ago — Michigan State’s first-round loss to Middle Tennessee State — were, no doubt, starting to take a grip on the Spartans faithful.
However, the guys on the court insist it never entered their minds, and that allowed Michigan State to stave off another upset and beat Bradley, 76-65, and advance to take on No. 10 Minnesota, which beat No. 7 Louisville earlier in the day.
“Not at all,” fifth-year senior Kenny Goins said when asked if the old feelings were returning. “Nope, thinking about today.”
But Kenny, you were there in 2016, trying to play through a bum knee when the heavily favored Spartans got bounced. You had to sense it.
“We were thinking about today,” Goins insisted. “Thinking about today.”
Goins then smiled. He understood. It was a crushing defeat that day in St. Louis as Michigan State, a popular pick to win the national championship, was done after one game.
To Goins, however, and fellow senior Matt McQuaid — he is the only other player on the roster who was there in 2016 — this has been the script all season.
“It’s just what we’ve done all year,” Goins said. “It’s a mentality, going through it enough to know it’s not about yesterday or five years ago or tomorrow of the next game. It’s worrying about today. At the end of the day we won and got another day to work, so what more could you ask for?
There’s probably plenty of folks who would have liked it to come a bit easier, but as coach Tom Izzo said after the game, he’s just fine with the slow starts as long as Michigan State finishes strong.
It did that thanks to 26 points from Cassius Winston as well as 16 points and 11 rebounds from Xavier Tillman. McQuaid chipped in 10 points as he, Winston and freshman Aaron Henry hit some big shots in the final minutes.
“I was just telling myself, kind of like in my head, ‘No, this ain’t happening. This ain’t happening again,’” McQuaid said. “Just going through that I feel like we didn’t panic. We stayed together and connected. Bradley a really good team and they showed that today.”
Elijah Childs scored 19 points for Bradley (20-15), the tournament champions from the Missouri Valley Conference that were back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 13 years. Darrell Brown added 17 points while Dwayne Lautier-Ogunleye scored 14 as the Braves made nine 3-poitners to keep the game close.
“It's a tough loss for us,” Bradley coach Brian Wardle said. “But I told the team, very proud of them. Their toughness, their competitiveness in this game, I don't think there are many teams that could have beat us today. I thought we might have run into one that could.”
It didn’t take Michigan State long to realize it was in for a fight as Bradley jumped to a quick 10-4 lead, nailing a pair of 3-pointers. The Spartans responded with a 9-0 run to take a 13-10 lead, but the momentum would be short lived for Michigan State.
The Spartans could never pull away, going just 2-for-10 from 3-point range in the first half. Meanwhile, Bradley was busy hitting 6 of 9 from long range, its final two giving the Braves a 35-34 lead at halftime after Michigan State failed to get a shot off on its final possession.
“You’ve got to stay confident, stick to game plan,” Winston said. “When they’re hitting threes like that, it can take you away from what you do, cause turnovers, stuff like that. We did a good job of staying solid, sticking to the game plan.”
After Bradley scored the first four points of the second half, Michigan State started coming to life, going on a 10-0 run to take a 44-39 lead with 16:49 to play and pushed that advantage to 50-43, capping a 16-4 surge when Nick Ward hit a pair of free throws.
But two straight turnovers led to five Bradley points in a matter of seconds followed by an offensive foul on Ward with 11:34 to play. Brown then buried a deep 3-pointer to give Bradley a 51-50 lead and the crowd was getting behind the underdog.
“It was cool though,” Tillman said. “It started to feel like an away game and made us come together a little more.”
Tillman responded with a layup as the lead went back and forth over the next few possessions. Winston then scored four straight points to put Michigan State up, 58-55, with just more than four minutes to play. McQuaid then hit a 3-pointer from the wing followed by a jumper in the lane from Henry to give the Spartans a 63-55 lead with 2:41 to play.
Bradley ran out of gas from there as Michigan State went 25-for-26 from the free-throw line to clinch the victory.
“I'm proud of them, I am,” Izzo said. “We're still going to grind it. We're going to push it. We are still going to make mistakes. We didn't show mental toughness. I thought we were worn down. It's going to be good to go back to the hotel and look at some things.
“I am proud. Matt McQuaid and Cassius Winston just wouldn't let us lose and that was the two guys that talked the most in the huddles.”
NO. 2 MICHIGAN STATE VS. NO. 10 MINNESOTA
Tip-off: 7:45 p.m. Saturday, Wells Fargo Arena, Des Moines, Iowa
Records: Michigan State 29-6, Minnesota 22-13
Next up: Winner faces No. 3 LSU or No. 6 Maryland in the Sweet 16