'Best ever' performance from Rocket Watts helps Michigan State rally past Detroit Mercy

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing – Perhaps Michigan State was still thinking about its win over Duke. Or, perhaps, Detroit Mercy is going to be a tough team to beat this season.

Whatever it was, the Spartans were fortunate to be able to turn to Rocket Watts when they needed him most. Behind a career-high 23 point from the sophomore guard Friday night at the Breslin Center, the Spartans rallied in the second half against the Titans, grabbing the lead late and holding on for an 83-76 victory.

“I told Rocket after the game that was the best I've seen him play – ever,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “Because he was under control, he made good plays, he made great decisions, he played phenomenal defense and just think how long he was in there because we had Aaron (Henry) switching with him a little bit and Aaron got in foul trouble.

Michigan State's Rocket Watts cuts through the UDM defense in the first half.

“So I thought Rocket Watts did an amazing job and I’m really proud of him … You know, he's gonna take a bad shot or two and I'm gonna live with that, because I understand that those are some of the things that change. Now, it can't be five or six (bad shots), and tonight it wasn't and for that I was proud of him.”

Watts finished 8-for-14 from the field while handing out four assists in 30 minutes of action. Gabe Brown had his best offensive game of the season, scoring 16 points, hitting 4 of 6 from 3-point range. Henry had a double-double, scoring 12 points and grabbing 10 rebounds for the Spartans (4-0) while Joey Hauser scored 10 points despite banging his knee and sitting out the last seven-plus minutes.

BOX SCORE: Michigan State 83, Detroit Mercy 76

“He was dynamite in a lot of different areas,” Henry said of Watts. “Scoring in the half court, setting guys up, getting guys open shots. He was just everywhere. He was guarding their best player, he was scoring for us and doing things. … He was huge for us and he's grown a whole lot and the sky's the limit.”

Not only did Watts run the show offensively, he was charged with trying to slow Antoine Davis. One of the country’s most prolific scorers, Davis scored 24 for Detroit Mercy but had to work hard for his points, going 10-for-26 from the field and missing all nine of his 3-point attempts.

He got some help as Matt Johnson added 20 points for the Titans, who were playing their first game after the first three of the season were canceled because of COVID-19, while Bul Kuol scored 12 and Marquell Fraser chipped in 11. It was the first time Detroit Mercy and Michigan State have played since 2001.

“I thought our guys fought really hard,” Detroit Mercy coach Mike Davis said. “I’m really proud of them. We just ran out of bodies with Bul and Willy (Isiani) going out. It left us really small, but I couldn’t be more proud of my team than I was tonight.”

There was a clear lack of energy early as Michigan State opened a 22-14 lead. The Spartans missed multiple easy looks and didn’t do well taking care of the ball. By the end of the half they had turned it over 10 times and according to the shot chart had gone 4-for-13 on layups.

Detroit Mercy took advantage and put together a 12-2 run to grab a 26-25 lead on a jumper from Davis. Michigan State scored five in a row to retake the lead but the Titans proved at that moment they were there for a fight, tying the game at 35 on a put-back from Isiani and just missing out on a chance to lead at the half when Davis’ long 3-pointer at the buzzer bounced off the rim.

“He didn't have to remind us, it was evident in how we were playing,” Henry said of any halftime reminders of how the Spartans looked flat. “When it comes down to it, we have to play, play with some grit and just come more prepared. We can't just come and think anything is given to us.”

UDM's Bul Kuol is defended by Michigan State's Julius Marble in the first half.

Michigan State had a bit of a spark to open the second half as Hauser scored seven straight points and a Watts jumper gave the Spartans a 46-41 lead. But the Titans got two straight 3-pointers from Johnson and eventually took a 51-50 lead on a pair of free throws from Davis, extending that lead by two more when Johnson scored on a runner with 12:20 to play. The Detroit lead grew to 59-54 after two straight Michigan State turnovers before Watts scored our in a row to pull the Spartans within one.

But Isiani nailed an open three on the next possession to give Detroit Mercy the 62-58 lead with 8:34 left in the game.

That’s when Michigan State started to come back, tying the game at 62 on a Watts runner as he scored eight points in a row. The Spartans went back in front on back-to-back buckets from Brown and later in the half pushed the lead to 78-72 after a Henry put-back. Detroit Mercy pulled within two and had a chance to tie but Davis’ step-back shot fell short and the Spartans got a dunk from Julius Marble and a triple in the corner from Brown to put the game away.

The Spartans now prepare to host Western Michigan on Sunday.

“It’s a lot easier to get their attention after a win sometimes,” Izzo said. “You wouldn’t think so, you think you need to lose. But I think I’ve got enough maturity on my team that we don't need to lose to figure it out. And at tomorrow morning's film session, they're going to figure out that we didn't lose, but there's a lot of work to go.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mattcharboneau