It was a stress-free night for No. 5 MSU, as they cruised past North Florida, 78-48.
With injury sidelining two of MSU’s best shooters, guards Gary Harris and Travis Trice, MSU still shot 52.9 percent from the field and had nine different players contribute to the score sheet. Head coach Tom Izzo said after the game he was proud of how his healthy players stepped up in place of those out with injuries.
“There is so much adversity here,” Izzo said. “I thought we’d have those two guys playing last night, and I found late last night they didn’t think they could go, but they tried today … it’s been really hard on our team because of ‘who’s starting, who’s not starting, who’s this and who’s that.’”
Senior forward Adreian Payne led the game in scoring with 19 points, while junior forward Branden Dawson finished with silver on 12 points.
Sophomore guard Denzel Valentine and junior forward Russell Byrd also scored in double digits, with 11 and 10 points respectively. Five different Spartans grabbed five rebounds, with Payne and Dawson leading the way with seven boards apiece.
North Florida head coach Matthew Driscoll not only saw Dawson as a player that helped top the Ospreys, but as the key member on MSU’s team for the season.
“To me, Dawson is (MSU’s) guy,” Driscoll said. “It’s almost to the point where (MSU) won’t be able lose him. He’s that one person that can put it on the floor, go get rebounds … and make plays at the rim.”
The solid performance by Dawson comes nearly two weeks after his shaky two-point, three-rebound outing against North Carolina. Thanks to a useful meeting with Izzo and a new approach in practice, Dawson believes he is getting back to his gritty and aggressive ways.
“After my meeting (with Izzo), I went home and thought to myself and said ‘Hey, do I want to keep coming out here and not playing hard and not giving my all?’” Dawson said. “So after that I’ve kept on pushing myself during practice and great things have been happening.”
However, there was one area Izzo was disappointing in that he will be harping on during the holiday break – MSU’s 20-of-38 shooting from the free throw line.
“Thank God for the holiday seasons,” Izzo said. “Any time you have a week off there’s no 20 hour (practice) rule, (and) we are going to spend 20 just on free throw shooting, so we don’t have to worry about the rule.”
The Ospreys (5-7 overall) couldn’t find their rhythm all night and shot four-of-25 from 3-point range to show for it. They ended the game shooting 29.6 percent from the field on 16-of-54 shooting.
Four seconds was all it took for MSU to take a lead, as senior guard Keith Appling connected with junior forward Branden Dawson on a designed alley-oop after the tip off. The Spartans continued to thrash the Ospreys throughout the half with MSU grabbing a double-digit lead less than five minutes into the game.
The early routing was a group effort by the Spartans, highlighted by an 11-0 run compiled by five players to go up 21-4.
The Green and White also overwhelmed the Ospreys on defense for much of the first half, as North Florida didn’t reach double digits until the 7:46 mark. Led by Payne’s 15 first half points, MSU walked into halftime with a more-than-comfortable 50-19 lead.
The Ospreys fought back in the second half behind Jalen Nesbitt’s nine points, beating MSU 29-28 in the second half. Nonetheless, the first half barrage by the Spartans was too much for the would-be historic comeback as the Ospreys never got within 28 points of tying the game.
Although they were outscored, the Spartans found productivity in freshman forward Gavin Schilling, who layed in his career-high seventh point with just more than four minutes left in the game. With sophomore forward Matt Costello out indefinitely due to mononucleosis, production in the front court is a must for MSU, and Schilling is becoming more comfortable in his role.
“I’m feeling more comfortable out there,” Schilling said after playing a career-high 20 minutes. “I’m not rushing things, I’m getting into the system out there, and that’s it.”
The loss was the Osprey’s third loss this season to a Big Ten team, losing to Ohio State and Indiana earlier in the season. When asked where MSU ranks among those three, Driscoll said it is neck-and-neck between the top teams.
“I would say right now, it would be Indiana third,” Driscoll said. “I think it’s a flip of a coin between (OSU and MSU).”
The Spartans will next take on Texas (9-1 overall) 4 p.m. on Saturday in Austin, Tex.