MSU displayed its mental toughness in gritty win over Oakland
DETROIT - The men's basketball team has been sitting nice and comfortably on cloud nine the last few weeks.
Prior to playing Oakland in the Hitachi Basketball Showcase at Little Caesars Arena on Saturday, MSU won eight consecutive games and without much of a challenge from its opponents. Aside from a few bumps along the way (really, just one) it has been relatively easy sailing for the Spartans during the stretch.
With the exception of a 10-point Dec. 5 victory over Rutgers, MSU has won each game during the streak by 18 points or more.
The biggest challenge the team has faced this season thus far from a pure basketball standpoint has without a doubt been the Duke Blue Devils, who defeated MSU back on Nov. 14 when the teams were ranked No. 1 and No. 2 respectively. But probably the teams' most physical and emotional test came at the hands of in-state foe Oakland on Saturday afternoon in downtown Detroit.
No. 2 MSU held off Oakland 86-73 to win their ninth straight game, but it came at no easy task despite the misleading final score. The Golden Grizzlies presented the Spartans with their toughest challenge in almost a month since their last, and only, loss of the season.
MSU won by fewer points against Rutgers than they did on Saturday, but they led the entire way in the second half against the Scarlet Knights. The Spartans not only trailed at different points in the second half against Oakland, but the game was tied up with just over six minutes left in the contest.
The Golden Grizzlies features a pair of quality transfers, Martez Walker from Texas and Kendrick Nunn from Illinois, with Nunn being in his first season with the team. Both players are averaging double digits in points for their careers.
"That's a good basketball team, they got a lot of dudes that can score the basketball," said sophomore guard Cassius Winston, after the game.
Recognizing Oakland's ability, going into the game Winston treated the matchup with their Horizon League challengers as if they were fellow Big Ten Conference opponents.
"We kind of looked at this like a conference game. That's how talented I think they can be," Winston said.
Aside from an x's and o's standpoint, the heightened level of contentiousness and emotion was clearly evident throughout, especially late in the contest. MSU was trailing by one point with a little more than 12 minutes to go in the game, when sophomore forward Miles Bridges was grabbed out of mid-air on a break-away dunk attempt by Oakland's Chris Palombizio.
The play seemed to emotionally energize the Spartans, who took the lead on Bridges free throws following the play and never trailed from that point on, going on to win by 13 points.
"That hard foul, it brought the intensity you know. We're definitely not a team that's going to back down from anything, from any challenge," Winston said.
The contest included a combined 38 personal fouls between both teams, and a technical foul on Bridges late in the game as well.
"They want to get physical, then we get physical and that's just what happens," Winston said. "They brought that energy and we matched it and surpassed it. That's how we are."
MSU is now 16-0 all-time against Oakland, but the matchups between the two teams have been closely-contested in recent years, including a thrilling 98-93 overtime MSU win back in 2015 at the Palace of Auburn Hills.
While the venue for this season's outing was heavily dominated by Spartan fans, the Golden Grizzlies were well-supported in what was essentially a home game for them at a sold-out Little Caesars Arena.
Bridges attributed the high level of emotions to the interstate aspect of the matchup.
"It's an in-state game so every game is going to be like that. They were trying to get in our heads a little bit. I felt like we responded very well to it," said Bridges.
The game was chippy, but freshman forward Jaren Jackson Jr. said that's what makes in-state rivalry games such as this one fun to play in.
"It's great. We know them, so personally it's more bragging rights," Jackson Jr. said. "The talking, the trash talk, all that stuff just comes with the game and that's very fun."