Cassius Winston, Nick Ward, Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr. talk about the Spartans' 65-60 victory over the Wildcats. Matt Charboneau
Rosemont, Ill. — If ever there was a team that was finished by halftime, Michigan State sure looked like that team.
Through the first 20 minutes Saturday against Northwestern, the second-ranked team in the nation could hardly make a shot while the Wildcats could hardly miss. The pro-MSU crowd at Allstate Arena was stunned while the smaller home contingent was as loud as it’s been this season.
Michigan State found itself behind by 27 points late in the first half and down 22 at halftime while its best player — Miles Bridges — was committing fouls and throwing the ball away while the usually stout defense was offering little resistance.
Things looked bleak for the Spartans.
“Honestly, this team, we were in the locker room and we were ready,” sophomore Cassius Winston said. “It sucked we were down like that but there was no point … you could see it in our eyes that we didn’t doubt we could come back, that we could do this.”
What seemed far-fetched didn’t take long to become probable, and by midway through half became likely. When it was all said and done, Michigan State pulled off the largest comeback in Big Ten history and tied for the fifth-largest in NCAA history by rallying for a 65-60 victory.
It was the 10th straight victory for the Spartans (26-3, 14-2 Big Ten) as they remain tied for first place in the conference with Ohio State, which plays Sunday at Michigan.
“It was scary but it was fun at the same time,” Bridges said. “As soon as we started coming back I knew we were gonna go on a run.”
Added freshman Jaren Jackson Jr. on how he was feeling, “Exhilarating. It was crazy. I yelled so loud I lost my voice again.”
Michigan State managed to pull off the comeback thanks, in large part, to a far better defensive performance in the second half — Northwestern shot just 11.5 percent (3-for-26) — along with some outstanding play from Winston. The sophomore guard scored 17 to lead Michigan State while Nick Ward had 15 points and 10 rebounds and Jackson scored 11 points.
But, while Winston said the confidence didn’t wane, coach Tom Izzo wasn’t so sure. What he saw in the final 20 minutes proved to him how far his young team has come.
Spartans coach discusses 65-60 victory over Wildcats. Matt Charboneau
“I’m ecstatic by the comeback and I’m ecstatic by the fact that we showed some character,” Izzo said. “At halftime … I didn't know when we left (the locker room). They were shaken a little bit. They haven’t gone through that before. Nobody at Michigan State has ever been down 27 and come back and won, so I can’t expect those guys to.”
Well, he might not have expected it, but that’s exactly what happened.
After a Derek Pardon dunk put Northwestern ahead, 51-28, with 18:50 to play, everything flipped. Michigan State responded with a 27-2 run that provided its first lead, 55-53, after a Jackson layup with 5:26 to play.
The Spartans scored 24 straight at one point during its decisive run as it outscored Northwestern, 38-11, in the second half. Northwestern went 11:31 without scoring a point and more than 13 minutes without making a basket.
“Obviously a very difficult loss today,” Northwestern coach Chris Collins said. “They turned up the intensity defensively and we got a little bit fatigued and foul trouble was an issue. They started making a run and we had reserves in there. You play a good team like that and they get rolling it’s tough to bounce back.”
A Michigan State lineup that featured Kenny Goins and Xavier Tillman along with Matt McQuaid put defensive pressure on the Wildcats, and at the other end it was Winston that started to turn the tide. He scored eight of 13 points in one stretch and when Ward put back a Winston miss with 8:49 to play, the game was tied at 53.
“Every lineup we have is as powerful as the first,” Ward said. “It was just they did what they needed to do to get the job done. They started it off, really. ... driving in the ball and got a couple loose balls, Kenny with some big rebounds. That started it off.”
More than three minutes later, Michigan State took its first lead, 55-53, on the Jackson layup. He added a free throw and after another Winston 3, the Spartans were up 59-55 before Pardon answered with a baseline drive and dunk to bring the Wildcats within two.
Northwestern had a handful of chances to tie the game but came up empty on each possession. Bridges then hit two free throws followed by two more from Winston. After a Law 3-pointer, Bridges put the game away with his last two free throws.
“It’s amazing,” Winston said. “It sucks to fight like that. We’re drained, exhausted. We definitely didn’t want to be in that situation but to battle back like that shows the heart this team has.”
Northwestern (15-13, 6-9), which was playing without guard Bryant McIntosh (shoulder) was the aggressor early as it shot 8-for-13 from 3-point range in the first half and went on a 23-4 run to turn a 7-4 lead into a 30-8 advantage with 7:51 to play in the half. Things didn’t change much the remainder of the half as the Wildcats extended the lead to 43-16 on a three-point play from Gavin Skelly with 4:18 to play.
Vic Law scored 21 for Northwestern while Skelly had 11 and Anthony Gaines added 10 points.
“When I look at it, there can’t be a much better comeback than that one we just had,” Izzo said. “There really can’t be.”