Spartans win, take small step forward: 'We'll get better'

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing – With the next seven days off, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo came into Saturday’s matchup with Tennessee Tech with one primary goal – get a win.

He got that, but it wasn’t exactly one that came as easily as it probably should have.

BOX SCORE: Michigan State 71, Tennessee Tech 63

Eron Harris scored 20 points as Michigan State earned a 71-63 victory at the Breslin Center, but the short-handed Spartans could never get over the hump and put the Golden Eagles away. In each half, Michigan State built an 18-point lead only to watch it dwindle to single digits.

“The first half (defensively) I thought we were phenomenal,” Izzo said. “Everybody was getting a hand up, we were bothering (them) and stopping the penetration. Then what happens to this team, I don’t know if we can’t stand prosperity or if just we wear down a little bit.

“But every time we take a couple steps forward we take a couple steps back.”

It didn’t help that sophomore guard Matt McQuaid joined the growing list of injured players as he sat out after taking a shot to the head in practice on Thursday. He sat with Miles Bridges, who missed his third straight game with an ankle injury while Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter continue to sit with knee injuries.

The missing players created some interesting lineups, and when big men Nick Ward and Kenny Goins got in foul trouble, things got difficult for the Spartans.

“Trust me when I say this, if I looked frustrated I probably was,” Izzo said. “This is new territory for me and we beat a decent team and we’ll try and move forward from it. But some of the lineups in there tonight in my dreams I didn’t have, and in my nightmares I didn’t have. It’s not the players’ fault it’s just what we’ve got.”

It didn’t make too much of a difference early in the game as Harris and the Spartans came out hitting on all cylinders, making four of their first seven shots with all four coming from 3-point range. Ward’s jump-hook in the lane with 14:52 to play was the first two-point basket for the Spartans and gave them a 14-4 lead. The Spartans eventually pushed that lead to 32-14 as Harris scored 11 in the opening half and Ahrens added eight.

But with Ward and Goins sitting, Tennessee Tech kept the game close headed into the halftime break. After Michigan State took the 32-14 lead, the Golden Eagles went on a 13-3 run to cut the margin to 35-27. A late layup from Matt Van Dyk gave Michigan State a 37-27 lead headed to the locker room.

“The last two games have been really eye-opening for me,” Goins said. “I’ve got to play a lot smarter. To foul out in the last two games with under 15 minutes, that  is unacceptable. We don’t have the guys to do that. It’s just eye-opening and I hope Nick learns from it too. We can’t have both of us in foul trouble and expect to succeed.”

Spartan injury list grows to include McQuaid

The second half followed a familiar pattern as Michigan State began to pull away and led 64-46 with 7:34 to play. But the Spartans made just one of eight shots from there and turned the ball over four times.

Tennessee Tech took advantage as Kajon Mack hit a 3-pointer with just more than three minutes to play to cut the Spartans’ lead to 65-56. Hakeem Rogers then hit a running layup to make it 65-58 with 1:28 left.

Goins added a dunk and Joshua Langford hit a pair of free throws in the final minute to end any threat. Langford and Nick Ward each scored 10 for the Spartans while Kyle Ahrens had nine and Cassius Winston had nine assists for the third straight game.

Aleksa Jugovic scored 14 for Tennessee Tech (4-7) while Mack chipped in 12 for the Golden Eagles.

“We had a lot of good but we had a lot of flaws,” Harris said. “We just have to continue to get better and our biggest flaw is not sustaining our play. We can play great system ball and then get to a point where we get kind of sloppy and do our own thing.

“We know we are a great team but in the end we won’t be great if we can’t sustain it. That’s the biggest message for when we’re going over the game plan, let’s sustain it when we get up big and go ahead and put our foot on the pedal.”

The Spartans will now take the next seven days off while players go through finals and just two non-conference games left before Big Ten play.

“We’ll get better,” Izzo said. “We’re getting better. We’ll get consistently better. That’s what I’ll look for, getting better consistently.”