East Lansing — The moments are getting bigger and bigger, and the good news for the Spartans is, Miles Bridges is rising with them. He wants the ball more and more, and even demands it now and then.
Michigan State is deep and enormously talented, and after another flurry of upsets, might be the No. 1 team in the country again. But if it’s to separate from others as tournament time approaches, Bridges is the one who must lead it, and he’s increasingly inclined to do so.
He did it at the end of a classic clash Saturday, rising and firing a deep 3-pointer with 2.7 seconds to beat No. 3 Purdue 68-65. It’s not that Bridges took and made the shot. It’s that everyone pretty much knew he’d take the shot, even if it wasn’t the drive that Tom Izzo had drawn up. But as Izzo has kept pushing, Bridges slowly has stopped deferring, adopting a star’s instinct.
It was an emotional day in a raucous Breslin Center, as the Spartans honored the late Jud Heathcote, then truly honored him with a sound, sweaty old-school effort. They still haven’t hit their potential height, despite an eight-game winning streak and a 24-3 record, tied with Purdue one game behind first-place Ohio State.
Cassius Winston was clutch and composed (10 assists, 3 turnovers), and that’s something the Spartans need every game. They also need Nick Ward to play adequate enough defense to stay on the floor, and they need Jaren Jackson Jr. to somehow avoid unrelenting foul trouble.
Into any void must step Bridges, the 6-7 sophomore who made the unlikely choice to return to play in games like this. Yes, I’ll go ahead and say it (and then duck): When others are hampered, the Spartans need him to be Bridges over foul-troubled waters.
“I’ve felt a little bad for a guy like Miles, who came back to try to have the greatest year he could have, and some of it has been crazy, through no fault of his,” Izzo said. “He’s such an unselfish guy, but I think you’re seeing — I picked a couple words — him be more of a jerk, and I think he’s really starting to become more aggressive. He wanted the ball, and I wanted to give it to him. I was just happy for him.”
Bridges is too modest and polite to be a jerk in the traditional sense, but he’s getting the idea. He finished with an efficient 20 points (9-for-14 shooting), and in the huddle a couple times he told the coaches, “Give me the ball.”
“I said, yessir,” Izzo said.
The final play was a clear-out designed primarily for Bridges to drive and get fouled. But he spied the slightest separation from defender Dakota Mathias and stepped back to drill the winner, and the crowd erupted as loudly as it has all year.
It’s been a tumultuous season around here, as everyone knows, but the players have bonded through it. Michigan State has only one home game left, and it’s time to start defining and refining. Winston is the game-by-game barometer, as point guards tend to be, and Izzo called this his best performance as a Spartan. Jackson is the most unique weapon, a shot-blocking marvel when he’s not getting called for fouls.
Bridges is the guy who can do it all — drive, shoot, defend, rebound, pass — and he probably needs to excel in that order. Michigan State trailed by 10 late in the first half before the clamps came out. Bridges shut down Mathias, and the Boilermakers didn’t hit a 3-pointer in the second half.
Then came the signature shot with 2.7 seconds left, which allowed the Spartans to hang around in the Big Ten race. Bridges didn’t drive to the basket, so what would’ve happened if he’d missed?
Cassius Winston and Miles Bridges after No. 4 Spartans defeated No. 3 Boilermakers. Matt Charboneau
“Coach would’ve been mad,” Bridges said. “But chances make champions, that’s what I always say.”
This was more about challenges than chances, as two gifted teams kept throwing their best at each other. It was a fantastic slugfest between the veteran Boilermakers with 7-2 monster Isaac Haas in the middle, and the younger, rawer Spartans. Close your eyes and it could’ve been a clash between the legendary Heathcote and Gene Keady, the Purdue icon who was in attendance.
The Spartans made the bold choice not to double-team Haas, who scored 25 points. That went against Izzo’s nature — and shocked Boilermakers coach Matt Painter — but it limited Purdue’s dangerous three-point shooting, and in the end, a 3-pointer was the difference.
These are clear Final Four candidates, and neither did anything to lower those expectations. There were nine turnovers combined between the teams, a sharp battle of wills and strengths. Since falling at home to Michigan Jan. 13, the Spartans haven’t lost, and are back in position for a possible No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Izzo is still wondering if his team can hit its ceiling, and recent tight games against Indiana and Iowa stirred some angst. But winning on the road is never easy, even in a down Big Ten, and it helps to have a singular player capable of compensating for deficiencies.
“This (felt like) a deep NCAA Tournament game,” Izzo said. “We proved we can play different ways again — we can play fast, we can play slow, we can play smashmouth, we can finesse, we do it on rebounding or do it on shooting. What won us the game was our depth. We followed the game plan and then a star took over. That’s kind of what you need in a tournament setting.”
Yep. That’s kind of exactly what you need.
“Every team has their guy, and Miles Bridges is our guy,” Winston said. “We’re gonna live and die by Miles. He definitely wants that moment, that’s what he worked for, what he came back for. We don’t have to nudge him. We just gotta tell him maybe to be a little smarter, that the whole world isn’t on his shoulders.”
It may seem that way sometimes, and it actually may be that way sometimes. The difference is, Bridges looks more and more prepared to handle it.