Spartans survive scare in Big Ten tourney opener, advance to face Badgers
Indianapolis — Believe it or not, Michigan State won on Thursday.
But judging by the tone of the postgame press conference, it would have been hard to come to that conclusion without watching the game or looking at a box score.
Seventh-seeded Michigan State got it done at the Big Ten tournament, eliminating No. 10 Maryland with a 76-72 victory at Gainbridge Fieldhouse to advance to Friday’s quarterfinals against No. 2 Wisconsin.
But considering how the final seven minutes of the game played out, when Maryland, for the second straight game nearly erased a 20-point deficit in the second half, the Spartans were hardly in a celebratory mood.
“Disappointed, frustrated, a little bummed out,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “And for Tom Izzo, frickin angry. I do not accept that. That’s not what we should be doing.”
Izzo wasn’t talking about the entire game. In fact, he said, “for 85% of that game we played damn good.”
No, Izzo was talking about the finish, the last three minutes, in particular. That’s when Michigan State, after having its lead cut to nine after leading by 20 with 13 minutes to play, had extended it back to double digits on a 3-pointer from freshman Jaden Akins.
From there, nearly everything fell apart.
Maryland scored nine straight points to pull within three before a pair of Tyson Walker free throws followed by five points in 15 seconds from the Terrapins. A Walker jumper pushed the lead back to four before freshman Max Christie hit two free throws to extend it to six.
But four points in five seconds from Maryland made it a two-point game before Fatts Russell got off a 3-point attempt that would have put the Terps ahead.
He missed and Christie grabbed the rebound and hit to more free throws to put the game away.
It all played out as Michigan State could not get the ball over half-court, turning the ball over seven times in the final 2:26.
“Our press offense was ridiculous,” Izzo said.
It was a remarkable end to a game that Michigan State controlled most of the way, just as it did Sunday in the regular-season finale before giving up a huge lead, and just as it did early in the season at Maryland.
But just like those games, Michigan State (21-11) managed to get the win.
“You’ve got be happy with the win,” Walker said, “but we’re not satisfied with the finish because we had the game in our hands and let it go.”
Added Christie, “We can’t let up leads like that. At the end of day a win is a win, but it was ugly at the end and we’ve got to make sure that can’t happen.”
Christie played his best game in weeks, scoring 16 to lead the Spartans while Gabe Brown added 13 points.
Russell scored 20 for Maryland (15-17) with Eric Ayala adding 17 points, Donta Scott getting 15 and Hakim Hart chipping in 11 for the Terrapins.
“We have bunch of guys that compete and battle,” Maryland coach Danny Manning said. “We talk about playing from tip to horn and we definitely did that today.”
It was another quick start for Michigan State, much like it had in the previous two meetings against the Terrapins. On Thursday, it was Brown that got going early with five points before Joey Hauser hit a three and a Malik Hall layup gave the Spartans a 15-7 lead just five minutes into the game.
After Maryland pulled within one at 18-17, the Spartans punched right back with Walker nailing a triple before two straight jump hooks from Julius Marble pushed Michigan State’s lead back to 25-17.
That’s when Christie started heating up, hitting three from long distance over the next seven minutes as Michigan State’s lead grew to 10 at one point. Maryland chipped way at that gap, as well, pulling within 38-34 before the Spartans closed the half with Marcus Bingham jumper and a 3-pointer from Jaden Akins to take a 43-34 lead into the halftime locker room.
The Spartans were 7-for-11 from 3-point range for the half with Christie hitting all three of his attempts.
“When I made the first few, I felt a lot more comfortable when I was out there,” Christie said. “But like Coach said, when I got those rebounds and played the best defense as I could, I felt even better. I think that settled me in nice and easy. And then you combine that with the made shots, I think that's a good combination you can have, especially in March.”
Michigan State kept punching early in the second half as Bingham put back his own miss then scored on a jump hook before a three-point play in transition from Brown put the Spartans up, 50-37, with 16:18 to play. The Spartans kept pouring it on that point as Marble had a pair of free throws, Hall hit a runner at the end of the shot clock and Brown nailed a deep 3-pointer to extend the lead to 57-37 with 13:02 left in the game.
Much like the first two meetings, however, the Spartans could not put the Terrapins away. Maryland quickly put together a 12-2 surge to pull within 59-49 with 9:06 to play on Scott’s second 3-pointer of the half. But Hall got a jump-hook in the lane before A.J. Hoggard scored on a driving layup and Christie hit a long jumper to give Michigan State a 65-51 lead with 6:59 left in the game.
Maryland scored the next five points to get within nine before an Akins 3-pointer pushed the lead back to 12. The Terrapins then scored six in a row to cut the deficit to 68-62 with 1:48 to play as Michigan State turned it over on two straight possessions.
“They did a good job denying us, everybody from getting the ball,” Walker said. “I felt like somebody else should go get it and get it to me, but I should have went and got it. And then those turnovers, we did so good for the past couple games not turning it over that we did it late at the end of the game, so just got to get better at that.”
Two Walker free throws were next but Michigan State turned it over again and Russell converted a three-point play with 1:06 left to cut the MSU lead to two. But a Walker jumper and two free throws from Christie put MSU up by six. The Terps, though, got two steals and four quick points before Russell got off a 3-pointer that would have given Maryland the lead.
Instead, Christie grabbed the rebound and put the game away at the free-throw line.
“We’ve got to do a better job with the press offense as a staff and they've got to do a better job executing it,” Izzo said. “We'll go to work on that. We've got a nice tape-down area in our nice hotel and we've got room to have a full-court scrimmage tonight so maybe we'll get after it a little bit, have a little fun and get ready for the Badgers.”