Michigan State guards Foster Loyer and Rocket Watts talk about their performances in the victory over Western Michigan. The Detroit News
East Lansing — Michigan State was without its best player on Sunday night, but it turns out the Spartans didn’t need Cassius Winston to close out non-conference play in proper fashion.
With Winston out after suffering a bone bruise to his left knee in practice on Friday, No. 14 Michigan State used a 25-0 run in the first half to grab the momentum before cruising to a 95-62 victory over Western Michigan at the Breslin Center.
And the catalyst for the run was Winston’s replacement — sophomore Foster Loyer.
The move from high school to the Big Ten has been a tough one for the former Mr. Basketball from Clarkston, but he backed up a solid performance last week against Eastern Michigan by getting his first career start while scoring 16 points and handing out six assists, both career highs.
“I felt comfortable out there,” Loyer said. “I think it's just been important going in each and every day at practice and feeling comfortable, going out there and playing like the player I know I can be. Just going out there and making shots like I know I can make shots. Regardless of whether the shots went in tonight or not, I think just being aggressive, looking to get my teammates open and just being able to run our team I thought was real important.”
With Winston a game-time decision, it did prove to be important. Winston missed a game for the first time in his career and saw his streak of consecutive starts end at 56. But with the way the Spartans (10-3, 2-0 Big Ten) played offensively, it hardly mattered.
Junior Xavier Tillman scored 15 points and grabbed 11 rebounds for the Spartans (10-3, 2-0 Big Ten) while sophomore Aaron Henry scored 15 and fifth-year senior Kyle Ahrens chipped in season-high 12 points. Freshman Rocket Watts returned for Michigan State after missing the last four games with a leg injury and scored nine points with five assists in 12 minutes. With Winston out, sophomore walk-on Jack Hoiberg saw his most extensive action, playing a career-high 13 minutes while handing out a career-best six assists.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo talks about what he liked, and didn't like, after the victory over Western Michigan. The Detroit News
“I thought we had a couple guys that had unbelievable performances,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “I thought Aaron Henry has really taken some steps. The last couple of games, the last couple of practices he’s taking some steps forward. I thought Xavier Tillman — we wanted to go into him and they did pretty good job doubling him — when we did get the ball into him he scored.
“And Foster played very well. Both of our point guards struggled on the defensive end, but offensively Foster played well and Jack gave us a lift in that little bit of time.”
Freshman B. Artis White scored 12 for Western Michigan (7-6) while junior Michael Flowers added 12 points for the Broncos, who hadn’t played Michigan State since 1998.
“Yeah, it's a really good basketball team we ran into,” Western Michigan coach Steve Hawkins said. “They're right there when they shoot the basketball as well as they did tonight. That makes them even that much more difficult to guard. Twenty-eight assists on 32 buckets; that's pretty special.
Western Michigan coach Steve Hawkins talks about what his team took from its loss at Michigan State. The Detroit News
“But I was really happy with our guys' fight, I was really happy with our guys' effort, especially late. They could've really mailed it in, but we had some kids that needed to see the ball go through the hoop tonight and there's some things that we can look at on film and certainly correct as well, but this kind of game will really help us.”
After a slow start for the Spartans, the game-changing run came for Michigan State as Gabe Brown dunked in transition followed by back-to-back 3-pointers from Ahrens and Tillman. Watts scored five points during the surge while Malik Hall nailed a couple of free throws to cap the 25-point outburst that ended when Brandon Johnson hit a baseline jumper for Western Michigan.
The Broncos missed 13 straight shots during the Spartans’ run and did not score for 8:21. By the time the half ended, Michigan State had outscored Western Michigan 40-10 over the final 14:33 to take a 48-24 lead into the locker room.
Michigan State continued to roll in the second half as Loyer started to find his shooting touch, nailing three straight 3-pointers at one point as the Spartans extended their lead to 80-37 with just less than eight minutes to play and cruised the rest of the way.
It wasn’t perfect, though, and with Michigan State returning to Big Ten play Thursday when it hosts Illinois, Izzo said he’ll be pushing his big men to get better.
“I was very, very disappointed in the last five minutes of that game,” Izzo said. “We’ve got some bigs — we’re very young — but those bigs got to play. And we're going to go up against one of the biggest teams in the conference next game. So, I made a big point talking about how they have to be physical and run up and down. That was embarrassing. … I'm totally disappointed in them, and I when I say that strongly, publicly, I mean it.
“But I do think we've made some great progress (after Christmas) with three very good practices and we probably played 30-some minutes of damn good basketball.”