Moving on: Michigan State prevails over Southern Cal in NCAA opener
Columbus, Ohio — Michigan State entered the NCAA Tournament searching for the one thing that has been a staple of the program during Tom Izzo’s tenure.
For much of the season, the Spartans were a classic Izzo team, at least when it came to defending. But, over the last few weeks of the regular season, as the offense started to come to life, the defense slowly began to fade, culminating with the Big Ten tournament loss last week to Ohio State.
So, it’s not a stretch to say it was the focus the past four days, as the seventh-seeded Spartans prepared to take on No. 10 Southern Cal in the first round of the East Region Friday at Nationwide Arena.
And by the time Michigan State had completed the 72-62 victory, it was clear that, for at least one day, the defense had returned.
“We got our mojo back,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “We talked about it for two or three weeks, but it’s no secret that I haven't been pleased with our defense. And I'd say 32, 33 minutes, I thought it was exceptional.”
It was clearly good enough to not only help Michigan State (20-12) advance to face No. 2 Marquette after its 78-61 victory over No. 15 Vermont in the second round at 5:15 p.m. Sunday, but it was more than enough to limit Southern Cal’s two best players — All-Pac-12 guards Boogie Ellis and Drew Peterson.
Ellis entered the game averaging 18 points per game and was limited to six, his fewest since scoring five against Cal State-Fullerton on Dec. 7. And Peterson, who has been bothered by a bad back, got a late bucket to get to 11 points, after failing to reach double digits in his previous three games.
“I think it is the best you’ve seen in a long time,” Izzo said of the Spartans’ defense. “And on those two guys — I can’t tell you how good Ellis is on film and in person. Tyson Walker did an unbelievable job. Jaden Akins bounded back and did an unbelievable. A.J. (Hoggard) did a very good job on Peterson and then A.J. got in foul trouble; give Malik Hall credit, because that’s the longest stretch he’s played since he’s been back.”
Combined with a 13-2 surge that began midway through the second half, it was all enough to get Michigan State out of the first round for the second straight season.
“Probably at least a month, maybe,” senior Joey Hauser said of the last time Michigan State defended well. “That last four, five games of the year, we shot the crap out of the ball, and we weren’t defending as well, but we were winning some games. So, we just defended and made up our minds that’s what we needed to do to win the game.”
It came as the offense was balanced, with Hauser scoring 17 and grabbing eight rebounds to lead the way. Akins and Walker each scored 12, and Hoggard added 11 with five assists.
Joshua Morgan took advantage of some early Michigan State defensive miscues to score 14 for Southern Cal (22-11). Kobe Johnson added 13 points and Reese Dixon-Waters chipped in 10. But, the fact the Trojans got little from Peterson and Ellis was the key.
“They did a good job,” said Ellis, who was 3-for-12 shooting. “I let my teammates down today. I didn't make shots and they made things tough for me. … Just team defense, jumping to the ball, being on all the gaps, pretty much.”
There was little doubt what Michigan State’s focus was entering the game, and that was defending the Trojans’ two best players. But, it was Ellis that was the real key.
“Coming in, we knew he was the engine that made the team go,” Akins said. “And we felt if we kind of limited his play, we had a good chance to win. I feel like that's what we did.”
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Michigan State was in control early, building an 11-point lead as a Hauser 3-pointer and a dunk from Mady Sissoko gave the Spartans a 24-13 lead with 9:09 to play. But, its only rough defensive stretch followed, as Southern Cal went on a 15-4 run to tie the game at 28. Morgan took advantage of Michigan State’s struggles on its ball-screen defense and scored eight straight during the run and had 10 by halftime.
The Spartans’ offense, meanwhile, lost its rhythm once again as they closed the half just 5-for-13 from the field and went just 2-for-8 from 3-point range, with both makes coming from Hauser.
The Spartans established control again early in the second half, as Hauser hit a 3-pointer before Michigan State put together an 8-0 run to push the lead to 49-40, getting two straight dunks from freshman Carson Cooper.
The Trojans clawed back once again, cutting the Michigan State lead to 53-49 on a tough jumper from Peterson. But, the Spartans scored the next seven, to take a 60-49 lead with 6:29 to play, as the Trojans missed seven shots in a row. Hauser and Akins then hit back-to-back 3-pointers to spark the decisive surge and push the Michigan State lead to 66-51 with 4:24 left in the game.
Southern Cal hit a couple of 3-pointers to get within nine, but couldn’t get any closer, as Michigan State eventually made enough free throws to secure the victory.
“I feel good. I feel great, in fact,” Izzo said. “I liked the attitude, liked the fact we did have a little adversity. We were much better defensively for 30-some minutes of the game. We had our bad stretch and the bigs looked tired and maybe we didn’t cover those ball screens as much, and they got those dunks and a 10-point lead went down quick. But, we fought through that adversity.”
And now, it means Michigan State keeps playing, perhaps rediscovering the part of their game that could prove to be most important.
“We know defense wins games,” Akins said. “We had a couple of losses late in the season and we just knew we didn't want to go home today. We know that's a big staple for us — if we get stops, we have a good chance to win. We just made that our focus, and I feel like we carried that out well.”