Steely Spartans block out off-court issues

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — While Michigan State continues to face outside questions surrounding campus and the athletic department as a whole, the basketball team is quietly building momentum in the second half of the Big Ten season.

Coach Tom Izzo has been pressured following a recent ESPN report questioned how his program — along with the football team and coach Mark Dantonio — have handled cases of sexual assault. However, he has to be feeling good about how his team has responded.

The off-court issues were building on Sunday at Maryland, along with the noise inside a sold-out arena packed with more than 17,000 fans ready to watch its team pull off the upset. And after the Terrapins opened a 13-point halftime lead, it looked like the Spartans were faltering in a hostile environment.

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Instead of crumbling, though, the young team that hasn’t played all that well on the road this season outscored Maryland 20-4 to open the second half and rallied for the victory.

“The atmosphere here was phenomenal,” Izzo said. “It’s very hard for me to say it’s because of what’s going on when there is people that have been through a lot more than my guys have been through. Yes, this is something that affects them, but don’t feel sorry for me or them. There’s 140-some women that we’ll feel more sorry for. I thought we did our best job of trying to deal with all the distractions out there. When you go on the road, there’s distractions of the opposing team and their fans, and they’ve got an incredible fan base here.

“I was proud of the way my team played, guys. I really, really was. I was disappointed in the first half, I was disappointed in the end of the first half but I was proud of them.”

Michigan State (20-3, 8-2 Big Ten) has had its issues away from home this season, beating Rutgers and Illinois while losing by double digits to Ohio State.

Showing some mettle with the game on the line was a revelation on Sunday, and heading into Wednesday’s home game with Penn State (15-8, 5-5), the Spartans are understanding there are no easy nights in the Big Ten.

“Like I’ve said, ‘Welcome to the Big Ten,’” sophomore guard Cassius Winston said. “They made some tough shots, we made some bad plays and they capitalized off that (in the first half). We did good job regrouping and coming back together with that focus.”

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Keeping that rolling will be critical. The Spartans host the Nittany Lions on Wednesday then travel to Indiana on Saturday. A trip to Iowa follows before next Saturday’s showdown with first-place Purdue, which hasn’t lost a game since the opening week of the season.

The fifth-ranked Spartans insist that’s where their focus lies these days — on the basketball court.

By doing that, they believe they’ll not only have a chance to reel in the Boilermakers, but they’ll also give the Michigan State community something to be proud of.

“We really just try to home in on our job,” sophomore guard Joshua Langford said, “and that’s to go out there and play basketball, play Michigan State basketball and bring light to the community during this tough time. So, we really just have to focus on what we have to do and just try to stay the course and focus in and everything else will take care of itself.”

Penn State at No. 5 Michigan State

Tip-off: 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Breslin Center, East Lansing

TV/radio: Big Ten Network/WJR 760

Records: Penn State 15-8, 5-5 Big Ten; Michigan State 20-3, 8-2

Outlook: The Spartans return home before playing their next two games on the road as five of the final seven games will be played away from home. … MSU was 19-for-23 from the free-throw line against Maryland and is shooting 74.3 percent this season. The Spartans shot just 67 percent last season. … Penn State has won two straight, including handing Ohio State its first conference loss. … The Nittany Lions have five players scoring in double figures, led by sophomore guard Tony Carr, who is second in the Big Ten with 19.2 points per game.