'They tell me to keep shooting': Brown, MSU push past High Point in sluggish outing

By Steve Kornacki
Special to The Detroit News

East Lansing — Michigan State had its hands full here Wednesday afternoon at Breslin Center with pesky High Point University, an underdog by more than 20 points that played as if it didn’t know that.

Bryson Childress, a 5-foot-7, 139-pound sophomore guard, nailed 3-pointers on consecutive possessions to make it 56-all with 8:56 to play in the game and finished with 12 points off the bench by going 4-for-5 from behind the arc.

Michigan State's Gabe Brown shoots against High Point during the first half Wednesday at Breslin Center.

“I’m a believer,” said High Point coach Tubby Smith, best known for coaching Kentucky, Minnesota and Georgia. “I think our players believed it.”

But MSU found an answer to the upset possibility behind the arc. Tyson Walker hit a 3-pointer and then Gabe Brown (career-high 24 points) hit back-to-back treys to build a seven-point edge down the stretch. The Spartans held on for an 81-68 victory that was close until the final minutes.

Joey Hauser (season-high 17 points, 11 rebounds) was particularly big for MSU in the first half, and Malik Hall (five assists) scored 13 points while A.J. Hoggard (eight assists) and Julius Marble II had 10 apiece.

BOX SCORE: Michigan State 81, High Point 68

Jaden House (18 points) and Zack Austin (15 points, eight rebounds) led High Point. Point guard John-Michael Wright (10 points, six assists) scored just under half his usual total (21.1), but came alive after halftime.

Spartans coach Tom Izzo took the microphone at half-court at the end of the game to acknowledge the challenges his team faced by losing four players to COVID-19 protocol, and to address the raucous crowd.

“You got us the win because we weren’t very good today!” Izzo told the faithful. “But we’ll be better when we get back!”

He also credited Smith, a long-time friend and rival whom he said “out-coached” him.

“Tom is very gracious about everything,” said Smith, who is coaching his alma mater in High Point, N.C. “I’m a great fan of Tom’s, and he’s a great friend and fan.”

Now, there were reasons to explain why the No. 10 Spartans (11-2) couldn’t shake the Panthers (6-7), who had a 35-34 lead at the half.

The Spartans lost 40% of their starting lineup to COVID-19 protocol.

They were without 7-foot senior Marcus Bingham, Jr., who leads the team with 8.0 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game, while scoring at a 10.8-point clip.

And freshman guard Max Christie (9.4 points, 3.3 rebounds), who leads MSU with 29.8 minutes per game and is considered “my best defender” by Izzo, also had to sit this one out.

Little-used reserve guards Pierre Brooks and Steven Izzo, son of the head coach, also were out under the protocol.

Coach Izzo was asked about what prompted him to address the sellout crowd of 14,797.

“As far as the COVID, I’ve got to watch myself on that to (not) be politically accused of things,” Izzo said. “Because of it, though, I was surprised that we had that many people out, and I was excited, pleased. You know, sometimes Christmas holidays, when people who don’t normally get to see us play, get to see us play because the students are gone.

“I just wanted to thank them. Listen, last year we had no fans (because of COVID restrictions). The year before, at the end of the year was such a weird ending. So, it’s been a while since our fans, in my mind, won us a game. And I thought our fans did a way better job than I did. I appreciated the kids, and the screaming and yelling.”

He said it also reminded him of his own father taking him to Northern Michigan games.

“You know, I love Tubby Smith,” Izzo said. “I just think he’s a damned good coach, and a way better person. It’s kind of neat that he goes back to his alma mater and wants to bring that thing back.

“I don’t want to take anything away from Tubby. I got out-coached. We got out-played.”

Hauser (6-9) became the go-to big man by scoring 11 points and grabbing seven rebounds in the first half.

“I knew I had to step up,” Hauser said. “We were playing limited guys.”

Izzo said it was the best game Hauser, a transfer, has played at either Marquette or MSU.

“He not only scored efficiently,” said Izzo. “He not only rebounded efficiently. But, most importantly, he defended pretty well… I’m really proud of him. He came back and thought he had COVID, and didn’t. And I never seen a guy so excited about it.

“Of all the guys that came back, he came back with the right mindset.”

Hauser kept the Spartans in the game with leading scorer Brown (13.3 per game) going 2-for-9 from the field in the first half while making 2-of-6 behind the arc. He finished 6-for-13 on treys and 7-for-17 overall.

Izzo told Brown on the way to the halftime locker room that “his shot was flat,” and Brown said he’s been working on correcting that flaw.

He did with the game on the line, while also coming on strong for seven rebounds.

“I love him to death,” Izzo said. “… He’s the hardest-working guy I’ve got. He’s a really good captain. But today wasn’t a good day and he ended up with a career high.”

Izzo, shaking his head in disbelief, found fault with Brown’s defense, and Brown accepted the blame.

Brown also relished the support of the fans and the confidence from his coaches and teammates.

“They tell me to keep shooting,” Brown said. “So, that’s what I did, and it turned out good. I appreciate that.”

The Spartans completed the non-conference portion of the schedule, and have three Big Ten games coming up in a seven-day stretch.

They travel to Northwestern Sunday (2 p.m.) before hosting Nebraska next Wednesday (Jan. 5) at 7 p.m. Then MSU goes to Ann Arbor for a Jan. 8 showdown with Michigan and a 2:30 p.m. tipoff.

Steve Kornacki is a freelance writer.