Wojo: In victory, Spartans show they can take a punch

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — He said he’d do it if he could, if needed. In Michigan State’s NCAA Tournament opener, he could and he did, and it was needed.

Miles Bridges took his time, and then he took over. Just when it seemed the Spartans were flirting with danger against 14th-seeded Bucknell, Bridges turned his attention to the basket and the task at hand. Michigan State needed most of Bridges’ spinning moves and rattling dunks to beat Bucknell 82-78 Friday night at Little Caesars Arena.

The game wasn’t as close as the final score suggested, as Bucknell nailed a flurry of 3-pointers at the end to slice into a 16-point deficit, but it was entertaining and spirited. The Bison showed what they’re capable of doing, scaring a power team, and Bridges showed what he’s capable of doing. He scored 19 of his 29 points in the second half, and as he promised before the Tournament, took over the game when required.

“I got on Miles at halftime, and we started running some stuff for him,” Spartand coach Tom Izzo said. “And he started answering the bell, one after the other. … The players wanted to go to him, but he wanted the ball, too. So I think you’re going to see more and more and more of this.”

They’ll look for more on Sunday, when they play 11th-seeded Syracuse and its sticky zone defense. Whatever rust Michigan State carried from its near-two-week layoff, it peeled away with power drives by Bridges and lethal shooting by Josh Langford. The Spartans were pushed but undaunted, and Bridges did precisely what he said he was going to do at some point.

Five minutes into the second half, Michigan State’s lead was still only six. And then Bridges went right at it, again and again. He swept the baseline for a layup. He tip-slammed a Nick Ward miss. He spun to the basket and drew a foul. He stepped back and bombed a 3.

The exclamation came with 5:02 left, after Langford missed a deep shot. Bridges leapt for the rebound and slammed it in, and just like that, the Spartans lead was 70-54, danger dismissed.

“It was just me being more aggressive,” Bridges said. “I was passive a little bit, was making good passes, but I needed to score the ball.”

‘We finally got into a fistfight’

It was needed because Bucknell lived up to its billing. The Bison hit 11 of 20 3-pointers, and it might have been tighter if star Zach Thomas hadn’t fouled out on a questionable technical with 6:06 left. He finished with 27 points, exemplifying why the Bison were considered such a tricky first opponent.

But Bridges answered that and more, and so did Langford, who shot the Spartans through an early malaise and finished with 22 points. The large Michigan State crowd roared for much of the second half, then oohed and aahed as the Bison hit desperation 3s — five in the final 1:18 — to make it appear even closer.

The Spartans entered the Tournament looking to regain their touch and a bit of their toughness, and they figured they’d be tested by Bucknell, which had won 18 of its last 19. They figured correctly, and it was a physical, feisty game, with technicals against both teams (Thomas and Langford).

“Maybe the key to this game was we finally got into a fistfight and dealt with that,” Izzo said. “I thought we played very well for most of the game. They’re a good team.”

If not for the revived shooting of Langford, Michigan State would’ve looked in trouble. Every time the Bison made a push, Langford made a shot. His 3-pointer midway through the first half put the Spartans ahead 23-12, and the Green throng in the stands was feeling the fun.

But Bucknell, with three senior starters, was way too experienced to be intimidated by the atmosphere. It was their second straight NCAA Tournament appearance, and with Thomas, Patriot League Player of the Year, they had a guy who could score from just about anywhere. In the first half, he scored from just about everywhere.

Thomas slipped inside and slid outside, banking in a deep 3-pointer. When he nailed another 3 with 5:20 left in the half, Bucknell was ahead for the first time 28-27.

Smacked into reality

Izzo was concerned about rust after Michigan State’s 13-day break since losing in the Big Ten tournament, but I’m not sure if it was rust or a Bison bust in the chops. Bucknell shot almost 50 percent in the half, 5-for-7 on 3-pointers, and trailed only 44-40.

“The first half, we were actually kind of forcing them to take the shots we wanted them to take, and they were making those, too,” Bucknell coach Nathan Davis said. “You watch them, they don’t have a lot of weaknesses. They’re as good as I’ve played against in a long time.”

Langford was a difference-maker, and that could be a big difference going forward. The Spartans had been looking for more shooters beyond Bridges and Cassius Winston, and they’d been looking for Langford for a while. When he’s on, Michigan State’s offense widens and lengthens, and he scored 15 in the first half on 7-for-8 shooting.

Langford, a 6-5 sophomore, had scored in double figures only once in the past seven games, and was 1-for-8 in the loss to Michigan. The Spartans knew they’d need a semi-unexpected boost from someone — every team eventually does in the Tournament — and Langford was the logical candidate.

At their best, the Spartans pound people with their big guys, then pop ’em from the outside. And as the game wore on, they wore out the Bison. You want a snapshot of shaking the rust and the cobwebs? It came early in the second half, as Ward ran the floor trying to track down a long pass from Winston, and went tumbling to the floor, landing on his head and flipping over.

Scary sight, no doubt, as Ward lay on the floor for several seconds. Then he jumped up, shook his head and shrugged his shoulders, and later returned to the game.

From a halting start to a furious finish, Michigan State shook itself to life in its Tournament opener, and was emotionally engaged to the end. Bucknell showed all it could do for a while, and it was interesting. Then Michigan State showed what it could do and it was over, the wake-it-up response we needed to see.