MSU's Max Christie has happy homecoming at Northwestern with key plays in second half

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Evanston, Ill. — As Tom Izzo pointed out, there has rarely been a shot Gabe Brown hasn’t taken.

In fact, in the second half of No. 10 Michigan State’s 73-67 victory over Northwestern on Sunday, it was Brown’s willingness to take what turned out to be the biggest shot that made the difference. The senior’s 3-poitner with 49 seconds to play — his third of the half on his way to 20 points — proved to be the final dagger as the Spartans overcame a sluggish start to rally for the win at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

But it was the shot Brown turned down that had Izzo shaking his head.

Michigan State's Max Christie (5) goes up for a shot against Northwestern's Ryan Greer (2) during the second half.

“We always run something on the tip and we usually go to our best shooter or we go to our most experienced guy,” Izzo said. “So we're setting something up for Gabe, and Gabe looks at me said, ‘No, coach, we’re in Max's house. This is a big deal. He was a ball boy here. We’re running it for Max.’

“I looked at Gabe, who never passed up a shot since he was like, one day old. He was shooting out of the womb to be honest with you. And I just said to myself, ‘That makes coaching cool. That’s what makes it neat.’ He was thinking of him.”

More: Michigan State stays put in Associated Press Top 25 college basketball poll

Brown knew as well as anyone what this game meant to Christie, the star freshman for the Spartans. He grew up in nearby Arlington Heights, Ill., and his mother, Katrina, played at Northwestern and scored more than 1,000 career points.

For Christie, who had spent time as a ball boy for the Wildcats, this truly was a homecoming.

“I was looking forward to this game a lot just coming into the season because my mom played here and this is kind of like the college I grew up in,” Christie said. “So I’ve been here growing up all my life. So coming into this game I knew a lot of people on the other team, knew the whole coaching staff and I was really excited. I was pumped up for it, so I wanted to give my best effort and we ended up winning the game, which is what I wanted.”

The Spartans (12-2, 3-0 Big Ten) knew it how important it was to Christie, and that’s why Brown was more than happy to defer the opening play of the game to his teammate. And while that play didn’t work out — not much did in the first half as Michigan State’s offense took some time to find its groove — Christie proved his worth in the second half.

His 3-pointer from the wing less than two minutes into the half was the beginning of an 8-0 run that helped Michigan State retake the lead at 36-35. And after Northwestern had moved back ahead by four, Christie ended an MSU drought by going high to grab a Brown miss and dunking it down with one hand.

It got the pro-Michigan State crowd on its feet and sparked a 13-2 surge as the Spartans wrestled control of the game away from the Wildcats.

“I'd say probably my two favorite moments, one was the put-back dunk,” Christie said. “I think that was a big moment for our team and just the momentum shift. That was just a big moment for me to get that dunk, and then on that transition three I hit to sort of start that run in the second half. I think that was a big moment to hit that three and then it got everybody else on the team going.”

The triple is what has become expected from Christie, who finished 2-for-4 from long range and scored 11 points while grabbing seven rebounds. But the put-back dunk had everyone doing a double-take.

After the game, Brown was still buzzing about the athletic move.

“Max is the hometown hero and did you all see that dunk he had?” Brown said. “Oh my goodness.”

To Christie, who has quickly proven to be not only a shooter but one of the Spartans’ most reliable defenders, it was simply a way to make an impact.

“I know I can score the ball and everybody knows I can shoot the ball,” Christie said. “So sometimes, even though I didn't necessarily shoot terrible — 2-for-4 isn't that bad — I still can impact the game in multiple other different ways like defense, energy, rebounding, like I did tonight. So that's one of my goals. Sometimes even though I want to score the ball and shoot the ball — obviously, who doesn't — I want to focus on those little things.

“Sometimes I can get my offense going and if I'm doing those little things and my shot isn't falling, that's still there and that’ll carry me.”

The Spartans are counting on that carrying Christie as the season progresses. In fact, they’re counting on that and much more as they prepare to host Nebraska on Wednesday before traveling to Ann Arbor to take on Michigan on Saturday.

For one day, though, they were happy to give him a winning moment in a place that is close to his heart, something that was clear the moment Brown passed up his shot.

“I ran a bad play and it didn't work,” Izzo said. “But just the thought of it said something about these players, this team and what they think of Max Christie.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mattcharboneau