Facing a sellout crowd and an improved Rutgers team (5-2, 0-1 Big Ten), No. 9 Michigan State men's basketball (6-2, 1-0) rebounded from its Tuesday night loss at Louisville, holding off the Scarlet Knights, 78-67.
Junior point guard Cassius Winston led the Spartans with 22 points, six assists, and perhaps most importantly, zero turnovers.
The slow starts that have plagued Michigan State in their last two games continued Friday night. Rutgers started out on fire, hitting four of their first six three-point shots and seven of their first ten shots overall, staking themselves to an 18-10 lead. The Spartans responded with a 9-0 run to claim their first lead.
Winston hit a deep three-pointer with 21 seconds left in the first half to give the Spartans a 37-35 lead, and lead MSU in first half scoring with 12. Despite the raucous crowd and tepid beginning to the game, MSU shot 50 percent in the first half.
A Michigan State defense that was shredded early in the game tightened up in the second, holding the Scarlet Knights to 32.1 percent shooting in the second half. Rutgers did not score a field goal for a six minute-plus stretch early in the second half, during which MSU turned a one-point deficit into a nine-point lead.
The highlight of the run came when freshman guard Aaron Henry stripped Rutgers’ Caleb McConnell at midcourt, dribbled to the rim and finished through a foul, and then converting the free throw.
With 6:50 left in the game and trailing by 13, Rutgers’ Geo Baker hit a step-back jumper at the same time MSU junior forward Kyle Ahrens committed a flagrant foul. Rutgers hit two free throws, and after a Shaquille Doorson putback dunk, the Scarlet Knights were suddenly within seven.
After an Issa Thiam three-pointer cut MSU’s lead to six with 5:20 remaining, the Spartans went on an 8-0 run to put the game out of reach. Sophomore forward Xavier Tillman grabbed an offensive rebound and drew a foul, converting both free throws. Winston attacked the rim for an old-school three-point play, then hit a jumper from behind the arc.
The game plan was clear for Michigan State all night long: get the ball to Nick Ward. The junior from Gahanna, Ohio was triumphant in his return to the site of arguably his lowest moment as a Spartan. During MSU’s last visit to the Rutgers Athletic Center, head coach Tom Izzo benched Ward.
He played one minute in the second half of the team’s 62-52 victory last season after failing to put forth requisite effort defensively. This year was quite a different story, as Ward scored 20 points on 7-12 shooting.
Senior guard and team captain Matt McQuaid missed his second straight game with a thigh bruise. McQuaid had been listed as day-to-day leading up to the game.
Junior forward Eugene Omoruyi led the gritty Scarlet Knights with 16 points and 11 rebounds. Rutgers sold out the RAC in November for the first time since 1997, a sign of the progress made by this once-moribund program under Steve Pikiell.
Michigan State returns home Monday night after four games away from East Lansing to face No. 14 Iowa at 7 p.m.