It finally all came together for Michigan State on Saturday.
An early 19-2 run in the first half allowed for point guard Cassius Winston to get well-needed rest and experience for freshman players, coupled by strong play from forward Nick Ward helped the ninth-ranked Spartans breeze past Minnesota, 79-55 at the Breslin Center.
The win ends a three-game losing streak for the Spartans (19-5, 10-3 Big Ten), while marking the third consecutive loss for the Golden Gophers (16-8, 6-7).
MSU coach Tom Izzo felt the score was especially fitting, given the team welcomed back and honored members of the 1979 team, which won the program's first national championship, led by late coach and Izzo mentor Jud Heathcote.
"Jud is up there having a beer with Gus (Ganakas)," Izzo said, smiling. "He’s so selfish, he wouldn’t let us score 81 so he let us score 79 so we’d remember the '79 team.”
Ward led all scorers with 22 points and had a game-high 9 rebounds for his first 20-plus point game since Iowa on Jan. 24. Matt McQuaid scored 18 and Winston had 11.
Gabe Kalscheur led Minnesota with 17 points. Golden Gophers standouts Amir Coffey and Jordan Murphy were limited to four and five points apiece and combined to shoot 3-of-10 from the floor.
“We didn’t play well," Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said. "We’re struggling offensively right now and Michigan State is good. So we’ve got to be able to get our confidence going and, like I said, I think we’re easy to guard right now."
Ward opened the game hitting his first three shots from the floor, helping establish the 19-2 run that allowed MSU to run away with the game. The spurt, lasting nearly seven minutes, included 3-pointers from McQuaid and Xavier Tillman to give the Spartans a 21-5 edge with 12:31 left in the half.
Winston earned two fouls in during a brief 7-0 Minnesota spurt in the minutes following MSU's run that kept him on the bench for the rest of the half with 10:14 until halftime.
With Winston on the bench, MSU coach Tom Izzo opted for freshman Foster Loyer to play point guard for most of the half — checking in after Winston's second foul and playing nine minutes for the rest of the half.
"Cassius did a lot of good things, he was just limited in minutes because of that foul trouble," Izzo said of Winston's nine assists in 24 minutes in addition to his scoring.
Loyer found fellow freshman Thomas Kithier on a bounce pass in transition for an easy layup with 7:24 left in the half to push MSU's lead up to 14 points. Though Loyer's play sufficed, both teams entered the midpoint on a combined 2-for-15 shooting funk to close the half. The Spartans, however, took the 35-24 halftime lead.
Ward and Winston opened the second half with three-straight buckets to take a 41-24 lead with 18:04 to play. The Spartans' lead grew all the way to 27 at one point, after MSU went on an 18-5 run to go up 66-38 with 10:42 left to play.
In that run, MSU was able to hold Minnesota to just five free throws, holding the Gophers without a field goal for close to five and a half minutes.
The Spartans shot 51.7 percent from the field for the game, the best mark since shooting 52.9 percent against the Hawkeyes before the start of the three-game skid. Minnesota was held to 36.7 percent shooting for the game, the second straight game of shooting under 40 percent.
Izzo praised MSU for outrebounding Minnesota 38-33 despite the loss of forward Kenny Goins, who exited early in the first half with an apparent left hand injury. The Spartans were out-rebounded in three of the last four coming into Saturday.
Rebounding, which Izzo preached helped establish the team's transition offense, helped MSU outscore the Gophers in fast-break opportunities, 20-7.
"Definitely one of our biggest things is our running game, said Kithier, who had a career-best eight points and three rebounds. "So when we defend and get rebounds and get the ball out and push, it changes the whole dynamic of the game. … Going in there, trying to get rebounds and boxing your guy out is huge for us and its the key for me to get more minutes."
Izzo said once Goins was removed from the game, the senior underwent an x-ray and no fracture was found. Izzo said the extent of Goins' injury is still unknown, but is hoping to know more by Sunday.
Should Goins be out for a prolonged period of time, he would mark the third MSU player to sustain an injury since the resumption of Big Ten play. Wing Kyle Ahrens (back) has missed time intermittently since MSU's win at Ohio State in early January and wing Joshua Langford recently underwent season-ending surgery to repair a stress reaction in his left foot.
"I think if there was an emergency late in the game he probably could have (played)," Izzo said. "He said he didn’t have the strength in his arm to make a pass."
The Spartans travel to the Kohl Center on Tuesday for a 7 p.m. ET tipoff against Wisconsin (17-7, 9-4). The Badgers had their six-game winning streak ended after losing to Michigan 61-52 on Saturday in Ann Arbor.