Evanston, Ill. — There won’t be any shiny new presents waiting under the Christmas tree when Michigan State returns home, but the Spartans will have an unblemished Big Ten record.
That was assured on Wednesday night when Cassius Winston shook off a poor shooting game less than a week ago against Oakland to score 21 points and lead No. 15 Michigan State to a 77-72 victory over Northwestern at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
The victory means the Spartans (8-3, 2-0 Big Ten) are the only team with an unbeaten conference mark and they’re the only team to win a Big Ten road game.
“You’ve got to come up with something,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “That’s motivating to our guys and it was important. We knew it wasn't gonna be an easy task here and it wasn't and consequently we got the win that makes us 2-0. But you know what? When I go home for Christmas, there will be no rings or banners under the tree for 2-0. So, it's just a nice start. My wife's probably happy I can enjoy Christmas a little bit more because we got off to a decent start, but we have a long way to go guys if we're going to be a team that we need to be.”
Izzo is right about that, especially after Michigan State turned the ball over 16 times leading to 24 Northwestern points. And as well as sophomore Aaron Henry played defensively and grabbing eight rebounds, he was 1-for-9 shooting and turned the ball over six times.
However, Xavier Tillman scored 15 points and grabbed 10 rebounds for the Spartans while Gabe Brown chipped in 11 points and 10 rebounds. Michigan State also outrebounded Northwestern, 48-24.
“That’s one thing we've been talking about,” Izzo said. “We’ve got to get tougher and we’ve got to get more aggressive and everybody knows we've really struggled from our wings. Henry went out and got some early and if he would have shot the ball at all good, I think he would have done more because he did play really good defensively.
“But rebounding is important to us. I wish they’d take the rebounding, make that as important as they have. Now if they take the turnovers and make that as important, then I think we could get to be a real good team.”
Michigan State needed all of it on Wednesday to hold off the Wildcats, who refused to let the game get out of hand. They trimmed Michigan State’s lead to four in the final minute before the Spartans were able to put the game away at the free-throw line.
Freshman Boo Buie scored 21 of his 26 points for Northwestern (5-5, 0-2) in the second half while sophomore Pete Nance added 14 for the Wildcats.
“I was really proud of our guys,” Northwestern coach Chris Collins said. “The game could have really gotten away from us I think two or three times and I thought our guys just kept fighting and kind of hung in there. We had little spurts when we needed them to get back in the game and then I just felt like it was a loose ball or a long rebound (hurt us).
“Certainly Buie was fantastic with his shooting and scoring and we have to continue to get better.”
It was clear early that Winston was in a rhythm as he hit his first two 3-pointers of the game to help Michigan State open a quick 10-point lead. However, the Spartans missed their next six shots and turned the ball over three times to allow Northwestern to stay in the game.
The turnovers crept in later in the half as three more mishaps by the Spartans allowed the Wildcats to pull within 23-20 with eight minutes left in the half. But Michigan State followed with a 9-0 run to take a 32-20 lead with just more than five minutes to play.
Another shooting slump followed as Michigan State missed its final five shots of the half, though Northwestern was unable to take advantage as the Spartans took a 37-27 lead to the locker room.
“Tonight we made some huge runs, we made some plays and we let it slip away,” Winston said. “You can’t do that if you want to be a really, really good team. I think we’re a good team. We got a lot of pieces and we show it in long glimpses, but then we have moments where we kind of slip up.”
Michigan State was the aggressor early in the second half as it used a 7-0 run to extend its advantage to 47-31 after a three-point play from Winston. However, Northwestern responded with a 10-0 run in just more than a minute to pull within six with 13:24 to play. The run was ignited by Buie, who scored 12 in two-and-a-half minutes to keep the Wildcats in the game.
A seven-point surge put Michigan State back up by 10, a lead the Spartans maintained until the final two minutes as the Wildcats had one more, pulling to within 71-67 on a jumper from Nance before Michigan State put the game away at the line.
The Spartans now head home for a non-conference game Saturday against Eastern Michigan. They do so knowing they’re a game up on everyone else in the Big Ten.
“It's huge,” Winston said, “especially when we pride ourselves on winning championships. So to have kind of a head start and be the first team to get a road win against a really good team that's gonna be a really good team in the conference, that's big for us.”