No. 11 Michigan State men's basketball improved to 2-1 with its 80-59 victory over Louisiana-Monroe Wednesday night at the Breslin Center. The Spartans overcame the loss of star junior center Nick Ward to a right leg injury in the first half, and pulled away in the second after leading by only six at the break. Junior point guard Cassius Winston scored 18 of his team-leading 23 in the second half to pace MSU.
Winston scored 14 in a massive burst early in the second half, leading an 18-6 run out of the locker room to pull away from the pesky Warhawks. He hit three 3-pointers during the stretch, celebrating to the Izzone student section after the third.
"I think we moved the ball better. (Winston) hit a couple, and once he hit a couple, he was ready to shoot. He shot a couple off the break, and then we went to him a few times," MSU coach Tom Izzo said after the game. "Cassius is capable of that a lot, and when he plays pretty good defense, he ran the break pretty well."
Ward left the game with 12:12 left in the first half, and headed to the locker room without putting pressure on his right leg. Izzo said postgame that it is a low ankle sprain, and does not appear to be a severe injury.
The Spartans as a team shot 55 percent in the second half, spreading the ball around much more effectively than they did during a lethargic first half.
"I felt like one of those shots was gonna drop," Winston said. "I think we were getting all the looks that we wanted, and eventually we were gonna hit some shots, that was the mindset I came out with."
Junior forward Kenny Goins grabbed a career-high 15 rebounds to lead the Spartans, who posted a 51-37 edge on the glass, and scored 21 2nd-chance points.
"We said tonight, 'If you’re not gonna make it, you better go get the rebound,'' Goins said. "I don’t know how many offensive rebounds we had (MSU had 15), but that was where we really tried to do our work for put-backs and stuff like that."
Sophomore forward Xavier Tillman chipped in 11 points and 13 rebounds, stepping up in Ward's absence. He said that the coaching staff was unhappy with his play in the first half, wanting him to post up deeper and be a more credible passing threat.
"Definitely at halftime, (Izzo) challenged me to be way more aggressive," Tillman said. "He told me, ‘Were gonna see what you got right here. Either you gonna fold or you gonna bring it.’ So I just had that mindset to be aggressive and play in the moment."
The first half was tightly-contested, even before the loss of Ward. Michigan State shot 28 percent from the field, including 2-19 shooting from behind the arc.
"Give (Louisiana-Monroe) a little credit too because they made some adjustments and we settled for threes," Izzo said. "I just was disappointed that I don’t think we were ready to shoot, and I didn’t think we made good passes to shoot. We’ve been shooting the ball pretty well, so that part was disappointing. I think a factor is we’re used to going inside to Nick, Nick is starting to pass it inside-out better. Those are the best shots. We didn’t get any inside-out passes until late in the game."
Junior guard JD Williams, who scored 15 of his team-leading 25 points in the first half, led the Warhawks to the position they were in at halftime, down just 35-29.
"For him to have a big night, I thought many times his quickness bothered Michigan State, whoever was guarding him. We started running stuff for him, and trying to get him in some 1-on-1s for driving lanes," Louisiana head coach Keith Richard said of the UAB transfer by way of Tallahassee Junior College.
The Spartans appeared dazed in the aftermath of losing arguably their best player, and Louisiana-Monroe took advantage by frequently getting to the free throw line to stay in the game.
"I thought our passing was poor tonight, that’s what led to some of those average shots. We didn’t hit guys where they were ready to shoot it," Izzo said.
MSU could not find consistent scoring in the first half after losing their best inside presence. In the half, the team was led by junior guard Joshua Langford, who had eight points, and Winston provided the spark in the second, where the Spartans cruised en route to their 21-point win.
The Spartans return to action Sunday night against Tennessee Tech. Tipoff at the Breslin Center is at 6 p.m.