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'We didn't come to play': No. 4 Michigan State stumbles to Northwestern 79-65 for first loss

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Evanston, Ill. — From the opening possession, something didn’t feel right.

No. 4 Michigan State was opening Big Ten play on the road against Northwestern, and before anyone could settle in, the Wildcats had ripped off an 11-0 run and grabbed control of the game.

Things never got much better as Northwestern controlled the game from beginning to end, rolling to a 79-65 victory Sunday at Welsh-Ryan Arena. It was Michigan State’s first loss to Northwestern since 2012, made even tougher to swallow considering the Wildcats won just three Big Ten games last season. And it was Northwestern’s first win over a top-five team since 1979.

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“Disappointed, and to be honest with you, confused,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “One of the more inept performances of my 26 years. It’s a harsh statement and I’m blaming myself. I’m the one that has to have my team ready and I don’t think we were ready from the opening second.

“There were some things we didn’t cover, plays we had worked on for three days. And I guess that happens. I don’t think anyone was reading their press clippings, but I don’t know.”

On this night, Northwestern was clearly the better team, shooting nearly 50% from 3-point range (10-of-21, 48%) and nearly outrebounded Michigan State, ending with just one less than the Spartans (33-32).

Boo Buie scored a career-high 30 for the Wildcats (4-1, 1-0 Big Ten) while Pete Nance added 15 and Ty Berry scored 12.

BOX SCORE: Northwestern 79, Michigan State 65

“They were better coached, they played harder, they had a sense of purpose,” Izzo said of Northwestern. “We had (a) board (in the locker room) and there were two words on the keys — never relax, play with a sense of urgency. I think most of you that have been around for a lot of years would say that was neither one of them.”

Michigan State (6-1, 0-1) played poorly on the defensive end all night, but it could never get its offense moving either. Aaron Henry scored 11 for the Spartans while Gabe Brown and Malik Hall each had 10, but the Spartans shot only 28.6% (8-for-28) from 3-point range. Rocket Watts was 2-for-11 shooting while Joey Hauser was 2-for-7.

“We just didn’t come to play,” guard Joshua Langford said. “We messed up a lot of coverages defensively. We just weren’t there as a unit overall, and we take full responsibility as players.”

The first half was an ugly 20 minutes for the Spartans, who looked like a team that had played only once in two weeks. The Spartans scored the first four points of the game but Northwestern quickly responded by scoring the next 11, taking advantage of a suspect Michigan State defense.

On the other end, the Spartans were setting for contested jumpers and when they did get to the rim, they were unable to finish.

Northwestern used another run — this one 14-4 — to open up an 11-point lead after back-to-back 3-pointers from Buie, a lead that jumped to 38-25 on a pair of free throws from Robbie Beran. Michigan State could get no closer as Northwestern took a 43-30 lead to the locker room with Michigan State’s final possession ending with a rushed shot at the buzzer after failing to find much else against the Northwestern defense.

Michigan State shot just 35.3% (12-for-34) in the first half, including only 4-for-15 from 3-point range. Meanwhile, Northwestern was 14-for-27 (51.9%) from the field, including 6-for-12 from three. The Wildcats were also the more aggressive team, getting to the line 10 times and matching Michigan State on the glass as each team had 17 rebounds.

The Spartans opened the second half with plenty of energy and cut the deficit to 10 at 50-40, but they missed two straight 3-pointers and a pair of free throws and the Wildcats took advantage. Northwestern scored the next 11 points to take a 61-40 lead, though Michigan State scored nine in a row to pull within in 61-49.

The Wildcats answered with a 3-pointer from Berry and Michigan State never truly threatened again.

“Things happen and there’s going to be some ups and downs, maybe,” Izzo said. “But I didn't like the way we responded, and that was disappointing. So I take the blame.”

Michigan State now prepares for a huge game on Christmas as it hosts Wisconsin in a matchup of teams many expect to compete for the Big Ten title. If the Spartans expect to be a contender, they’ll have to make a significant turnaround.

“We know we got embarrassed," Hall said. "We know what we have to do.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mattcharboneau