Michigan State's Xavier Tillman, Rocket Watts and Aaron Henry talk about a big second half in the victory over Iowa. The Detroit News
East Lansing — The halftime locker room must have been something.
Struggling to finish games all season, No. 24 Michigan State finally did so on Tuesday night at the Breslin Center, riding Cassius Winston and Rocket Watts to a 78-70 victory over No. 18 Iowa, moving the Spartans slightly ahead in the logjam that is second place in the Big Ten with three games to play in the regular season.
Winston, who scored one point in the first half, scored 19 in the second half to finish with 20 and nine assists while Watts matched a career-high 21, including a clutch 3-pointer in the final stretch. Aaron Henry added 17 points for the Spartans (19-9, 11-6 Big Ten), who head to first-place Maryland on Saturday. The Spartans also got a huge second-half effort from Xavier Tillman, who played only five minutes in the first half because of foul trouble, essentially shutting down Iowa’s Luka Garza.
“I’m worn out. That was a tough game and I thought Iowa played their tail off,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “Give credit to Aaron Henry. I thought he was our best all-round player. I thought Cassius, after a miserable first half, did what true champions are supposed to do. He did an unbelievable job in the second half. And Rocket Watts made some big plays.
“But the player of the game for me, without blinking an eyelash, was Xavier Tillman. In the second half, he guarded Garza almost by himself. If he’s not one of the best defensive players in this league, I don’t know who is … There’s no question he was my five-star.”
Garza scored 20 for Iowa (19-9, 10-7), but was limited to eight points in the second half. Ryan Kriener added 18 points for the Hawkeyes while Connor McCaffery chipped in 11 points.
“He hit a couple shots early and they really started running some stuff for him, and that takes a lot of attention,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said of Winston’s second-half performance. “He got loose but it also created opportunities for Henry and Rocket. Those guys got going in the second half, too.”
Michigan State found itself short-handed less than five minutes into the game as Tillman picked up his second foul with 15:12 left in the half and was forced to sit until halftime.
Iowa took advantage, pounding the ball into Garza, who scored 12 in the first half. Michigan State went on a 7-0 run to take a 21-20 lead, but it was all Iowa from there as the Hawkeyes scored the next seven points and led, 31-25, with two minutes to play in the half after Garza scored in the paint. The teams traded buckets to close the half as Iowa led, 33-27.
Iowa outrebounded Michigan State, 22-16, in the first half while the Spartans were just 1-for-9 from 3-point range.
Winston caught fire early in the second half after Iowa had taken its biggest lead at 42-32 with 17:26 left in the game. After a Watts 3-poitner and a free throw from Tillman, Winston scored 11 points in a row to spark a run that finished with the Spartans ahead, 53-51, with 11 minutes to play.
Iowa responded as Michigan State turned the ball over on two straight possessions. The Hawkeyes retook the lead and pushed their advantage to 60-56 before Henry scored on a baseline jumper and split a pair of free throws. After Iowa split a pair, Winston and Henry hit two each to give the Spartans a 63-61 lead with 4:17 to play.
Watts hit a triple to put MSU up five but Iowa answered with its own 3-pointer. The Spartans then got jumpers from Henry and Watts and a pair of free throws from Winston to push the lead to 72-64. Iowa got as close as 73-68 with 29 seconds left in the game but the Spartans put the game away at the free-throw line.
Michigan State coach talks about the play of Xavier Tillman in the victory over Iowa. The Detroit News
"Those last two or three minutes usually go to the teams with the most experience," Henry said. "That's something that we had a lot last year and in some places we don't have that this year, so I feel like we're growing as a team. The coaches have been preparing us for these moments and I felt like some of our leaders have been stepping up and taking control of locker room and it's carried over to the court."
The key for Michigan State will be continuing that over the final three games of the regular season, beginning Saturday at Maryland.
"That was a physical team that we found a way to win," Izzo said. "That's the biggest thing that we needed to do and we did it, so I'm proud of my guys for that.
"We found a way to win and hopefully that will propel us to practice even harder, to play a little bit better and I can't say that I'm not looking forward to going to Maryland, because I am."