DETROIT — Home court advantage proved to be a bigger factor than rust for the Spartans in their first round matchup against Bucknell at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit.
Spartan fans showed up and cheered in full force on Friday at LCA all throughout the men’s basketball teams’ 82-78 win over the Bison — and MSU needed every bit. The game was the team’s first since March 3, but a game Bucknell squad gave the Spartans more problems than rust.
"I swear to God when I first watched them (Bucknell) on film I said, 'This is Middle Tennessee-plus,"' head coach Tom Izzo said in his postgame press conference. "We're still growing. I mean we're still trying to get better, but we really took a big step, because it was a physical game."
MSU didn’t look like a team who hasn't played in 13 days early in the contest. Sophomores Joshua Langford and Nick Ward, who have been struggling in recent games, helped the team take an early 12-6 advantage over the Bison.
Langford and Ward had five of MSU’s first seven made field goals. Langford’s jump shot was falling early and often, which was a sight to see after his 0-4 two-game stretch from 3-point territory coming in to Friday.
"When Josh is hitting shots, my assists - they skyrocket up," sophomore point guard Cassius Winston said. "He was due for this type of game. The amount of time he puts in the gym, his shot is going to fall. We knew it was coming."
The Spartans led by 11 points at the halfway point of the first period, but the Bison climbed back into the game off seven straight points, all scored by senior Zach Thomas. Thomas capped off the run by banking in a 3-pointer following a missed layup by Ward.
Thomas’ scoring and the Bison’s success from beyond the arc kept them within striking distance. Bucknell went 5-of-7 from three in the first half and Thomas poured in 20 points to boot.
The story of the second half was a red-hot Miles Bridges and a cold Bison offense. The Bison went through a scoreless stretch of over five minutes and went over nine minutes without making a field goal, where they went 0-for-9.
A scoring binge by sophomore wing and likely lottery pick Miles Bridges didn’t help the Bison’s efforts either. Bridges scored 12 of MSU’s 16 baskets during one point, and did his damage in a variety of ways, from posterizing putback dunks to catch-and-shoot 3-pointers.
"I did get on Miles. I got on him at halftime. But boy, we started running some stuff from him and he started answering the bell, one after the other, and the tip dunk kind of 'typified' it," Izzo said.
Bridges, who led all scorers, scored 19 of his 29 points in the second half to help the Spartans hold off a scrappy Bison team. Langford was the only other Spartan who finished in double figures with 22 points. Ward had just two points the rest of the way after scoring six points in the first half.
Thomas fouled out with 6:06 left in the second half and finished with 27 points for the Bisons.
The Spartans will play the winner of TCU/Syracuse game Sunday at LCA in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.