Fresh approach lifts Spartans over Oakland
East Lansing — Michigan State needed something — a spark, a lift, whatever it might be — on Wednesday night at the Breslin Center.
The Spartans were coming off a loss at home on Sunday night to Northeastern and with Oakland coming to town, there was no guarantee a win was coming to close out nonconference play.
So instead of standing pat, coach Tom Izzo decided to shake up the starting lineup. In were three freshmen — point guard Cassius Winston, guard Joshua Langford and forward Nick Ward — along with sophomore guard Matt McQuaid and fifth-year senior Matt Van Dyk.
It was the first career start for Ward and Winston and each responded. Ward scored a career-high 25 points and grabbed nine rebounds while shooting 11-for-17 from the free-throw line. Winston was the catalyst to the offense once again, scoring nine points but dishing out eight assists as Michigan State pulled away in the second half for a 77-65 victory.
“They're starting to learn how to get up off the mat and be challenged and respond,” Izzo said. “And that is critical, especially for a young team.”
The Spartans (8-5) responded thanks to another big night from Ward. Thirteen of his points came in the second half and he was vital to Michigan State opening a 68-55 lead late in the game, scoring on the block and getting to the free-throw line.
His 11 makes at the line were a career high and the result of plenty of hard work there over the last few weeks.
“He’s lived at the line,” Izzo said.
It will be crucial for Ward to continue to make his free throws as he is quickly becoming one of Michigan State’s No. 1 offensive options.
“He’s dominant. He’s dominant down there,” Winston said of Ward. “There’s no other word for it. There’s a good chance if he’s down there one-on-one with somebody else he’s gonna score or get fouled. It was a common theme tonight. He went to the line 17 times. He's a force down there and it’s a good thing to have him on this team.”
The spark created from Winston and Ward was evident in the second half, though there were signs in the first half against the Golden Grizzlies as the Spartans took leads as big as eight and seven points at various times, but they couldn’t take advantage of Oakland’s foul trouble and led just 34-32 at the break.
Ward was effective inside, scoring 12 first-half points while Winston handed out four assists and Langford hit a 3-pointer late in the half while playing solid defense.
Michigan State got off to fast start in the second half, as well, taking a 49-41 lead on a jumper from Harris in the corner with just less than 14 minutes to play. The Spartans took their biggest lead at 52-41 on a 3-pointer from McQuaid with 11:50 left.
Ward then started to take over as Michigan State extended its lead to 68-55 with 4:50 to play. Oakland didn’t go away, however, and cut the deficit to 71-65 in the final minute, but it couldn’t get any closer as Michigan State made enough free throws.
“We had a mission to prove everybody wrong,” Ward said. “They’re calling us soft, saying we don’t play hard. So, we played the opposite. We played hard, and we played as a team. We felt like we had something to prove.”
Stevie Clark scored 13 to lead Oakland (9-3) while Jalen Hayes and Martez Walker scored 11 points each and Sherron Dorsey-Walker chipped in 10.
Oakland was playing the second game of a back-to-back after losing at the buzzer on Tuesday to Northeastern, the same team that won at Michigan State on Sunday.
“Doesn’t mean anything,” Oakland coach Greg Kampe said. “They can’t play back to back we got no chance to be any good.”
Foul trouble hit the Golden Grizzlies early as Hayes committed three fouls in the opening half and played just six minutes. Hayes eventually fouled out, playing just 12 minutes as the Grizzlies had four players foul out.
Senior Eron Harris and junior Lourawls Nairn were not in the starting lineup for the first time this season, however, each saw plenty of playing time as Harris scored 15 points while Nairn had an assist and a steal.
Michigan State entered the game hoping to close nonconference play on a high note after Sunday’s loss to Northeastern. The Spartans will get a couple of days off for Christmas before returning to prepare for the Big Ten opener at Minnesota on Tuesday.
Oakland provided a familiar test as it was the fifth straight year the Spartans and Golden Grizzlies have squared off and the 10th time in the last 11 seasons. Entering the game, Michigan State had never lost to Oakland, holding a 14-0 advantage on the team from Rochester Hills.