'We played hard': Michigan State grinds past Rutgers in Big Ten opener
East Lansing — After one month of personal tragedy off the court and ugly basketball on it, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo started to see things he liked on Sunday night.
There was rebounding and free-throw shooting, a little bit of defense and even bursts of energy from his star after what Izzo called two great practices by Cassius Winston.
The senior point guard had 23 points and seven assists to lead the No. 11 Spartans to a 77-65 win against Rutgers in the Big Ten opener.
The Spartans (6-3, 1-0) got out running early, but Winston committed a handful of turnovers, finishing the night with five as Rutgers hung around.
"I thought we ran as good as we've ever run in the first 10 minutes," Izzo said. "We threw some balls away that were just not him. Those fast breaks are just, in all honesty, not very good plays."
Monday will be one month since the tragic death of Winston's younger brother, Zachary. Cassius Winston played exactly 36 minutes on Sunday and for brief moments looked like the joyous leader the East Lansing faithful has come to expect.
"That (strong play) started throughout the week of practice, I thought we had a good week of practice," Winston said. "We played hard today. We didn't play perfect, but we played hard."
The win could set off a sizable win streak. After suffering their third loss on Tuesday against No. 10 Duke, the Spartans will be heavily favored in their next four games to close the 2019 portion of the schedule.
Xavier Tillman had 14 points and 10 rebounds, while Gabe Brown added a season-high 14 points and Aaron Henry scored 12 for Michigan State.
Izzo has talked about trying to get Henry going after an uneven start to the season. He was physical on drives, going 7-for-8 on free throws, but only shot 2-for-10 from the field. Izzo lauded Henry's aggressiveness and said he was pleased with the shots the sophomore was taking.
"I thought I did OK," Henry said. "I missed some shots I know I can make. Those things are going to come, so I'm not going to put any pressure on that."
It was Henry's fourth game in double-digit scoring this season, compared to four single-digit games. He also missed one game because of ankle injuries.
Michigan State’s guards and wings came out shooting poorly. Outside of an efficient first half from post players Thomas Kithier and Tillman, the Spartans were 6-of-24 shooting (25 percent) before halftime.
Rutgers held the lead for 44 seconds late in the first half before the Spartans scored the last six points to go up 33-28 at halftime.
Michigan State made just three of its first 13 3-pointers (23.1 percent), but Kyle Ahrens and Winston knocked down consecutive deep balls to give Michigan State its first double-digit lead, 43-32, with 13:55 to play.
Rutgers battled back with a 10-0 run, but the Scarlet Knights never regained the lead after halftime. Tillman’s only 3-pointer sparked a stretch of eight points for the junior in the final 8:34.
Winston was 8-of-17 shooting, and Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell called him the "best point guard in the country" after the game.
Michigan State outrebounded Rutgers by a 40-32 margin, and Izzo said he was pleased on his team's defense against Rutgers' top scorers.
"Right now, this team is not going to dominate anyone," Izzo said. "It was almost good for us to grind one out because we're going to have to do that for awhile until we get back on track."
Reserve Akwasi Yeboah had 17 points to lead the Scarlet Knights (6-3, 0-1), and Jacob Young had 12 points off the bench.
Leading scorers Geo Baker and Ron Harper Jr., son of former NBA champion Ron Harper, combined to go 5-of-19 shooting from the field with 13 points.
"That's a nice team, it's got some balance," Izzo said. "Gabe was involved with guarding a lot of people, and the one thing we were able to do is guard somebody with some size. That helped a little bit."
Freshman Rocket Watts, who started each of the first eight games, missed Sunday’s game with a lower-leg injury. His status is unclear going forward.
Brown started for the second time this season, knocking down all eight of his free throws, with Michigan State finishing 22-for-27 from the line (81.5 percent).
"There was nothing different for me, I just wanted to be solid," Brown said. "As solid as I can."
The Spartans are off this week before playing Oakland on Saturday at Little Caesars Arena. The rest of the calendar year features games at Northwestern, and then home games against Eastern Michigan and Western Michigan.
The Michigan State players have finals this week, and Izzo said the Spartans will undergo two-a-day sessions next week, working on specific skills that might get lost in the shuffle.
"It’s been a crazy month, it’s been the most different month of my coaching career," Izzo said. "But as we told them, we’re 5-3 in that first quarter of the season, and we’ve got to win games in these next eight."
Including a Jan. 5 game against Michigan, four of the next six Michigan State games are against in-state foes.
Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.