Michigan State shows 'fire' in win over Maryland, pulls within a game of first place

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

College Park, Md. — It was less than two weeks ago that Tom Izzo conceded winning even a share of the Big Ten was more than a long shot.

The Spartans had lost four of five games, a stretch that was capped by them blowing a seven-point lead in the final three minutes at home against Maryland.

It was, by far, the low point of the season.

Michigan State players celebrate a three-point basket made by Michigan State guard Rocket Watts (2) during the first half.

Instead of packing things in, however, Michigan State has quickly turned things around, rolling over Nebraska, then getting a hard-fought win early this week at home against Iowa.

And on Saturday night, No. 24 Michigan State declared the race for the Big Ten title isn’t over just yet. With No. 9 Maryland set to clinch a share of the conference title, the Spartans responded with one of their best games of the season, jumping on the Terrapins early and never letting up on their way to a 78-66 victory at a jam-packed Xfinity Center.

BOX SCORE: Michigan State 78, Maryland 66

“As you can imagine that was a hell of a win for us,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “I told them that we have to start playing for other people. I told him that if you just play for yourself, it's not rewarding. So I said, ‘You’ve got to pick somebody. Pick your girlfriend, pick your teammate, pick the players that played here before you and did such a good job.’ And really the thing I talked to them about is — we all know Cassius (Winston) has been through a lot this year, and I told our guys play for him, play for those seniors and the guys that have built this thing.

“I thought there was a little more fire from the opening get-go and because of that we played a very good game against a very, very, very good team.”

The win pulls Michigan State (20-9, 12-6 Big Ten) within a game of Maryland (23-6, 13-5) with two games to play in the regular season. The Spartans play at Penn State on Tuesday and host Ohio State in the season finale next Saturday.

But it was the way Michigan State played on Saturday that has the Spartans feeling confident heading into the final week. The home crowd was ready to celebrate what many expected would be a night the Terrapins clinched the Big Ten. ESPN’s "College GameDay" was on hand and the building was buzzing.

However, four minutes into the game the Spartans had taken the energy out of the building by jumping out to a 14-2 lead and grabbing control.

“It’s hard to be in that position,” Winston said of the pressure on Maryland. “Basically, the league is yours, should be yours and you got to win out. Not everybody's built for that pressure or not everybody's used to that pressure. It’s hard to win a championship. It's hard to come out and play your best each and every night because when you're on top, you'll get every team's best shot and it's hard to do that each and every night. To do that it takes a culture, it takes leadership that's been there before, all those type of things play into it.

“There was a lot more pressure on them tonight than there was on us. We won the game but they still have got to give us gift for us to get a championship, but it's a lot of pressure on their end.”

Winston and his teammates proved the pressure wasn’t too much for them. The senior guard scored 20 to lead Michigan State while Xavier Tillman had 14 points and 12 rebounds. Malik Hall added 16 points while Rocket Watts scored 13 for the Spartans.

Jalen Smith scored 20 and grabbed 12 rebounds to lead Maryland (23-6, 13-5) while Anthony Cowan scored 13 and Donta Scott chipped in 10 points.

“Michigan State was terrific,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said. “That was a different team than we played in East Lansing. We were a different team that played in East Lansing but a lot of credit goes to them. They came out and they hit us.”

The first half had its share of big swings as Michigan State jumped out to a 14-2 lead, making seven of its first eight shots. Maryland responded with a 13-2 run and eventually pulled even at 23-23 with just more than 10 minutes to play.

The Spartans were the next to make a run, scoring nine in a row as both teams started to go cold from the field. Michigan State went 4:30 without a point while Maryland’s drought lasted nearly seven minutes.

Michigan State kept the momentum going late in the half as Kyle Ahrens hit a 3-pointer from the corner, Tillman dunked on a dish from Winston and then Winston closed the half with a 60-footer at the buzzer to give the Spartans a 40-29 lead headed to halftime.

“That was an unbelievably-designed 75-foot play that we put in just last week,” Izzo joked about Winston’s shot. “So that's coaching fellas. That's coaching.”

Michigan State was hot again to open the second half, making its first seven shots as its lead grew to 49-33 after Tillman blocked a Smith shot then sprinted down the floor and took a feed from Watts for a layup. Maryland got within 56-43 after a 3-pointer but Hall answered with his own 3-pointer, then made a pair of free throws to give the Spartans 61-43 lead with 13 minutes to play.

The Terrapins started to chip away from there, pulling within 66-55 with 8:19 to play on a pair of free throws from Aaron Wiggins. The Terps cut it to 66-57, but Watts made a 3-pointer, then a jumper from the free-throw line to push Michigan State’s lead to 71-57.

“That's one of the things we've put on the board for the game,” Izzo said. “Let's play 40 minutes, not 37. We played 37 a lot of times this year and haven't found a way to win. Maryland on the other hand, has been in some tough games but found a way to win and that's what championship teams do.”

Late in the half, Winston converted a four-point play with 4:24 left to give the Spartans a 76-61 lead. Maryland scored five in a row to get back within 10 but Michigan State locked down on defense and put the game away over the final three minutes.

Now Michigan State heads into the final week of the season not only still alive for a title, but feeling much better about how it is playing.

“I think our guys believe we can play with anybody,” Izzo said.


Twitter: @mattcharboneau