Michigan State freshmen Malik Hall, Rocket Watts show they're ready for the spotlight

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Newark, N.J. – Late in the first half on Thursday night it was clear, Michigan State needed help.

As No. 3 Michigan State was locked in an epic battle with No. 12 Seton Hall in front of a sea of blue at the Prudential Center, senior guard Cassius Winston was stuck on the bench after two offensive fouls, junior big man Xavier Tillman was struggling with the ridiculous size of the Pirates’ front line and sophomore wing Aaron Henry headed to the locker room early after rolling both of his ankles on one play.

Michigan State forward Malik Hall hangs from the rim after a dunk against Seton Hall.

The “big three” that coach Tom Izzo has talked about being critical to the Spartans’ success needed a fourth, or a fifth.

No better time for a couple of freshmen to introduce themselves to the college basketball world. For forward Malik Hall and guard Rocket Watts, the contributions made in the final 15 minutes on Thursday night helped Michigan State win a huge game and, maybe more importantly, proved they can handle the pressure on big stage.

“We just found some guys,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “On a night when Xavier and Cash had kind of off-nights, my two superstars, so many other guys picked it up.

“Malik Hall, I don't think he's made that many threes in practice, combined. But that is a great tribute to him. … We hung in there and I thought Rocket hit a big three late and he's starting to play a little better. We just found a way.”

What they found was a pair of young players embracing larger roles.

First up was Hall. When the 6-foot-7 forward checked in for Tillman with 15:49 left in the game, he had yet to take a shot. A little more than a minute later, Hall buried a 3-pointer then dunked a miss from Winston to put the Spartans up five. His second triple broke a tie and put MSU up and was followed by a dunk on the break. Hall then nailed his third 3-pointer – a string of eight straight points for the Spartans – to tie the game at 55 with 9:49 to play.

Hall hit all three of his 3-point attempts and was a perfect 7-for-7 from the field. It came a week after he fired up his first shot against Kentucky just seconds after Izzo told him to wait until he was in the flow of the game before shooting.

Hall heeded his coach’s advice on Thursday and it paid off.

“It was all about just playing my role and doing whatever team needed,” Hall said. “I had a couple open shots this game and I was good enough to knock them down.”

Most came at critical times, too, as the game was going back and forth in the second half.

“Malik’s threes were huge because they were doubling cash,” Tillman said. “They said, ‘Somebody else has to beat us,’ and Malik was willing to be the guy that beat them, so he was huge for us.”

Michigan State guard Rocket Watts makes a basket against Seton Hall.

As important as Hall’s 3-pointers were, it was his drive and score over 7-2 Romaro Gill in the final seconds that put Michigan State up for good.

“He just finished it, and he finished over a big guy, too,” Izzo said. “That was a great play and for him to go 7-for-7 I mean, that's what you have to have in a game like this because Cash was in foul trouble and Henry was kind of on one ankle. You needed somebody to step up.”

While Hall was busy opening eyes with his clutch plays, Watts was quietly keeping the ship steady for much of the game.

With Winston sitting much of the first half and sophomore Foster Loyer running the point, a seven-point Michigan State started to disappear late in the half. But Watts nailed a 3-pointer late to keep the Spartans in front headed to halftime.

And late in the game, Watts had a pair of big plays.

After Myles Powell put Seton Hall up 71-66 with 2:40 to play, Watts had a shot at the rim rejected. Instead of hang his head, he took a pass from Winston on the wing on the next possession and drained a triple to cut the deficit to two with 1:44 to play. The Spartans then got a stop, Watts grabbed the rebound and pushed the ball up the court. He weaved to the middle then delivered a perfect pass to Winston for a three to put MSU ahead by one with 1:02 to play.

“Cash got in foul trouble and X struggled a little bit and got in foul trouble,” Watts said. “I felt like I had to step up in a big role and play the point guard position, run the team. I felt like I did good at that and my guys just kept talking to me, telling me to keep my head in the game.”

Michigan State will need its stars this season and when it was all said and done on Thursday, Winston scored 13 points in the final nine minutes and Tillman had two huge defensive stops to close the game.

But the Spartans will also need contributions from up and down the bench. In a hostile environment on Thursday, they learned two youngsters are up to the challenge.

“It was it was one of those nights that could be defining in some ways as far as moving forward,” Izzo said.


Twitter: @mattcharboneau