East Lansing — Tum Tum Nairn saw open floor, so he kicked it into overdrive.
But he saw something else, too. Purdue’s star, Caleb Swanigan, was jogging back in transition, while Michigan State’s Miles Bridges was running full speed. And with only the Boilermakers’ Spike Albrecht — a familiar face in an unfriendly place — hustling to get back, Nairn knew what to do.
The Spartans’ junior guard drove into the lane and then lofted an alley-oop pass near the rim for Bridges, who slammed it home with his right hand and sent the Breslin Center crowd into a frenzy
Michigan State had the lead early in the second half of a game they needed to have, and the Spartans had Bridges to thank for it. But they needed more to bridge the differences on the floor Tuesday night, and when it counted Michigan State simply didn’t have enough in an 84-73 loss to 20th-ranked Purdue.
Not enough scoring help for the Spartans’ freshman phenom, Bridges, who finished with a career-high 33 points in an entertaining duel with one-time MSU commit Caleb Swanigan. Not enough size to battle with Big Ten’s brawniest team, which dominated on the boards, led by Swanigan, who grabbed 17 rebounds to go with his 25 points. And not enough experience, perhaps, to ignore all the whistles on a night where the officials seemed to have their number, too.
The Boilermakers — one of only two Big Ten teams ranked in the top 25 — were coming off consecutive home-court blowouts of Illinois and Penn State and leading the Big Ten in scoring.
The Spartans were coming off back-to-back road losses at Ohio State and Indiana, and now after a third loss in four games — sitting at .500 in conference play — everyone’s starting to wonder if Tom Izzo’s team has enough to make the NCAA tournament field for the 20th season in a row.
Everybody but Izzo, from the sound of it Tuesday night. With six weeks left in the regular season, he’s already tuning out whatever angst is out there.
“If people want to complain, I don’t care,” Izzo said. “I really don’t. I know what I’m doing. I know what this team is doing. I know what they’re going through. …
“I’ve been here before, too. Been here before, and got to the tournament. So do I sit here and every day think, ‘Boy, this is gonna cost us getting to the tournament?’ I don’t do that. Do I like where we are? I don’t like where we are. Do I understand where we are? I do understand where we are. Am I gonna worry about what somebody says that has no clue what this team has gone through and what we’re doing? I’m not gonna worry about that.”
And besides, he said, this was an encouraging loss, if there is such a thing for Izzo.
The Spartans didn’t play smart, at times, whether it was Eron Harris or Josh Langford leaving an open shooter at the three-point line, or Nick Ward getting caught in a double team too far from the basket.
But they played hard throughout, which is something this young team hasn’t always done.
“If we had brought that all season,” freshman point guard Cassius Winston said, “we’d be sitting with a whole different view on our team right now.”
Tuesday night, they just had a hard time overcoming a bad matchup made worse by early foul trouble and this roster’s still-sizeable shortcomings. The Boilermakers’ strength is in the middle, where the Spartans simply don’t have the bodies to match up.
Especially when Ward picked up two fouls in the first 10 minutes and Kenny Goins joined him on the bench after picking up his second with 4:44 left in the half. Izzo, who was livid about the first-half foul disparity — “sickening,” he called it — had no choice but to go deeper into his bench.
The Spartans had just finished an 8-0 run to take a 33-25 lead. But the foul trouble left Matt Van Dyk, the 6-foot-5 former walk-on, trying to guard Purdue’s 7-foot-2 Isaac Haas for an extended run. And it was a run, as Haas accounted for half the scoring in a 14-4 spurt that to put Purdue back ahead just before halftime.
Bridges can’t do it all
Still, it was Bridges who had the last word then, grabbing the rebound off a Haas missed free throw and taking it the length of the court to tie it at the halftime buzzer, walking straight off the court and into the tunnel. His team followed him, momentarily lifted by the play.
Bridges wouldn’t stop there, either, on his way to a single-game record scoring night for a Michigan State freshman, besting Scott Skiles’ 32-point night in 1983.
“We were trying to stop him,” Purdue coach Matt Painter laughed, “even though we weren’t.”
He hit five 3-pointers and finished 12 of 17 from the field, to go along with seven rebounds and four blocked shots. That was a positive sign, as Bridges shook off a frustrating 4-for-17 offensive showing at Indiana.
Just as important, Bridges, in his sixth game back from an ankle injury that sidelined him for all of December, showed little, if any, sign of fatigue despite playing 36 minutes.
“But what Miles has to do now is he has to take on some leadership that we don’t have,” Izzo said. “He’s capable of doing that. So I’m gonna throw more on his plate. He’s gonna be one tired dude when this year is over. I’m gonna keep throwing stuff on his plate, because I think he can handle it. And I think he wants that.”
What Izzo needs, though, is for the rest to follow Bridges’ lead now. The off-court chemistry isn’t a problem with this team — Izzo was actually happy to see a little arguing in the huddle Tuesday night — but the on-court mix is still a bit muddled. The Spartans shot 52 percent from the field Tuesday, but only Bridges reached double figures, as the rest of the team shot 15-for-35 from the field.
Swanigan, meanwhile, was joined by five other Purdue players in double figures, and when the Boilermakers missed, they routinely got another shot, finishing with 11 offensive rebounds and a 15-5 edge in second-chance points.
Michigan State’s tournament chances probably didn’t take a serious hit Tuesday, though they could use another big win — or two — at some point to impress the selection committee.
But as Bridges noted after this one, while the “season isn’t over yet,” it’s getting late, “and we need to get it going now.”
“We just need to fight through this,” he said.
And somebody to lend him a hand.