Michigan State basketball weathers sluggish first half, holds off Northwestern

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Evanston, Ill. — To say Michigan State was flat to open Sunday’s game at Northwestern would be an understatement.

And it really shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. After all, the Spartans had played just two games over the previous three weeks, and for the better part of that final week-plus, they were limited in practice because a handful of players — starters Marcus Bingham Jr. and Max Christie included — were dealing with the effects of a positive COVID test.

Michigan State's Malik Hall (25) dunks during the first half Sunday against Northwestern.

All convenient excuses, of course, but the Wildcats have had their share of issues, too, so you can bet they weren’t feeling too bad as the teams squared off in front of a predominantly Michigan State crowd at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

Thanks to some big shots from Gabe Brown down the stretch and a far-better defensive effort in the second half, No. 10 Michigan State rallied in the second half then held on for a 73-67 victory as both teams jumped back into Big Ten play for the rest of the season.

BOX SCORE: Michigan State 73, Northwestern 67

“Let’s not forget that everybody's going through something,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “I’m sure Northwestern had some guys that we don't know about, and so everybody's in the same situation right now. It’s very difficult. … In fairness to the kids, it's hard.

“But hey, if we can get a win like this and steal it and go home … We did not play our best basketball. It was not something that will go down in Michigan State lore as far as a game that first half. But the second half I did think we competed more.”

Izzo was right, the Spartans (12-2, 3-0 Big Ten) won’t get any style points, and it’s hard to do when a total of 49 fouls are called, including 36 in the second half as the teams combined to shoot 51 free throws over the final 20 minutes.

“I don’t know about you guys, but that was not a fun game,” Izzo said. “It felt like there was a foul every minute. And I feel bad for the officials. I think the rules committees has got to really look at some things. But it was both ways and, as you could tell, neither one of us were real happy.”

Michigan State also turned the ball over 15 times, including nine times in the first half, and managed to win the rebounding battle by one but gave up 15 offensive rebounds.

The Spartans overcame it all thanks to 20 points from Brown, including a 3-pointer from the corner with 49 seconds to play that pushed Michigan State’s lead to 68-63 and allowed the Spartans to ice the game at the free-throw line.

“Gabe likes to take the big shots,” Izzo said. “He likes to take any shot. But I really do appreciate that about him, that he's not afraid of the moment.”

Brown finished with 20 points, 15 coming in the second half when he was 3-for-5 from 3-point range.

“It was a good look, my eyes were focused on the rim and I knew that we needed a point,” Brown said. “My feet were set and I was ready to knock it down.”

Brown got some help from Bingham, who scored 13 and grabbed nine rebounds while doing his best to fight through fatigue after missing the last game because of COVID. Christie added 11 points, including a rim-rattling put-back dunk in the second half, while Joey Hauser added 10 points and nine rebounds.

Pete Nance scored 13 to lead Northwestern (8-3, 1-1) while Chase Audige and Boo Buie each scored 12 for the Wildcats, who shot 32% for the game and were 20-for-30 from the free-throw line.

“We had our chances,” Northwestern coach Chris Collins said. “If you would have said to me after game that Nance, Buie and Audige would go 10-for-40 and we were gonna have the ball down two with a minute to go with a wide-open three to take the lead, I don’t know if I would have said that would be true. But that shows the kind of guys we have and the fight we have on our team. We got in a grind-it-out type of game and we were able to give ourselves a chance.

“But tip your cap to Gabe Brown. Heck of a shot there to put them up five.”

The first half had none of the excitement of the second as Michigan State started slowly, failing to find any sort of moment and falling behind quickly as Northwestern took advantage, dominating the glass and eventually taking a 13-point lead at one point during the half. The Spartans were just 1-for-10 from 3-point range and gave up 11 offensive rebounds to the Wildcats, who had a 26-18 advantage on the glass at halftime.

When Michigan State got a bucket from Bingham at the 10:25 mark, it scored four points and turned the ball over five times over the next seven-plus minutes. A late surge by the Spartans pulled them within 33-26, but another turnover, the ninth of the half, allowed Northwestern to maintain momentum heading to the locker room.

“We came out and had a bad first half,” Brown said. “That wasn’t Michigan State basketball, and Coach was harping on it.”

The Spartans came to life in the second half thanks to an early 8-0 run that gave them a 36-35 lead less than three minutes into the half. The Wildcats responded with four in a row and eventually pushed the lead to 42-38. However, a put-back dunk from Christie brought some life to the building and sparked Michigan State.

The play from Christie ignited a 13-2 run for Michigan State that gave the Spartans a 51-44 lead with 10:17 to play after back-to-back 3-pointers in the corner from Brown.

Michigan State got sloppy, though, and two straight turnovers led to a run from Northwestern that helped the Wildcats tie the game at 57. But the Spartans scored the next eight points to retake the lead, 65-57, with 4:23 to play after a three-point play from Bingham.

Northwestern responded by scoring the next six points to pull within 65-63 with two minutes to play before Brown’s three from the corner as Michigan State got the job done from there at the free-throw line.

“I'll take the win and get out of here because I feel like we beat a good team,” Izzo said. “Consistency is our problem right now. … It’s gonna take some time. We’re nowhere near where we can be, but I still like the pieces. I like the chance we have to head in the right direction.”


Twitter: @mattcharboneau