'Resilient' Spartans power past Penn State, win fifth straight
East Lansing – Basketball games at the Breslin Center feel far different these days than they did just a couple of weeks ago.
That goes without saying considering what has happened around the Michigan State campus. The entire community is still reeling in the wake of the
Larry Nassar sexual assault scandal as the former MSU doctor faces even more punishment this week in an Eaton County courtroom. It’s already led to president Lou Anna K. Simon and athletic director Mark Hollis stepping down.
Add in a recent ESPN report that questioned how both the basketball and football programs have handled sexual assaults and the repeated questioning of coach Tom Izzo, and there’s no doubt added pressure to a team that entered the season dealing with high expectations.
That pressure showed on Sunday at Maryland when Michigan State fell behind by double digits only to rally for a victory. And it was there again on Wednesday night as No. 5 Michigan State hosted Penn State.
The Spartans fell behind in the first half and were sluggish early in the second as the Nittany Lions opened a 12-point lead. But as they did a few days earlier, the Spartans came to life, exploding over the final 15 minutes to pull away for a 76-68 victory, their fifth straight.
“I don’t know why we’ve gotten off to such a poor start,” Izzo said. “We’ve done that a couple of games now and I think that falls on me. The coaches have to do a better job of getting the team ready to play. … but the way we battled about three different times shows some character in our guys and I was impressed.”
Miles Bridges scored 23 points and grabbed nine rebounds for the Spartans (21-3, 9-2 Big Ten) while Cassius Winston had 15 points and 10 assists.
Joshua Langford added 14 points for Michigan State while Nick Ward scored only six, but they came with the game on the line in the second half. The sophomore center also had nine rebounds.
But it took some time for that all to come together. Penn State (15-9, 5-6) started quickly and Tony Carr, who finished with 28, scored 12 straight at one point in the first half as the Spartans started reeling.
Winston said, just like his coach, he couldn’t put a finger on why the Spartans started slowly again, but he admitted there’s a different feel.
“I wouldn’t call it pressure,” the sophomore guard said. “Everything is amped up a little bit. You can sense a lot of tension on the program, there are a lot of eyes on us. For the most part, we’ve been rising to the occasion and this is our chance to give everybody a little hope with what we do.”
That started to show about five minutes into the second half after Penn State took a 41-29 lead on a 3-pointer from Shep Garner. Michigan State scored the next 12 points to tie the game and wake up the crowd, but that was just the start.
The run eventually extended to 41-14 after a triple from Langford gave Michigan State a 70-55 lead, one it wouldn’t relinquish despite a late push by the Nittany Lions in the final minute. By then, the crowd was in celebration mode, something they’d been yearning for the first 25 minutes of the game.
And while the players were celebrating, too, they were also glad they could provide a lift for their fellow student.
“You definitely feel it (on the court) and it’s a shout out to the student,” Winston said. “We’re in a situation where anyone can turn on us. The students can boo us and do all types of things, but they bring that energy, too. They’re showing a lot of love to Coach Izzo, to the players, to everybody and they’re showing they’re in it with us, too. Everyone are students here and we’re all going through it and they are doing great job supporting us.”
What the Spartans have shown in the last week is that they’re no longer young and unable to handle pressure. They’re dealing with much more than making baskets and winning games, and in a way, that’s making them better on the court.
“We don’t have to worry about my emotions,” Izzo said. “We have to worry about the team’s emotions, and I think my team has responded to the pressure and everything that’s gone on.
“You know what? This team is resilient and this team has done a hell of a job staying focused.”