DES MOINES, Iowa — Kenny Goins missed a free throw with just over a minute remaining in regulation, causing a sarcastic cheer from an assortment of fans to fill Wells Fargo Center on Thursday afternoon.
The second-seeded Spartans were not well-liked. Boos rained down from Bradley fans. Supporters of Minnesota, Michigan and other schools joined in the jeers to try to bring an upset on the first day of the NCAA Tournament.
But a key 9-0 swing for the Spartans (29-6) with under five minutes to play, coupled with a 25-for-26 clip from the free-throw line was enough to negate an off-shooting day but more importantly stave No. 15 Bradley (20-15) in MSU’s tourney opener, 76-65.
The Spartans will play No. 10 Minnesota (22-13) on Saturday (tipoff and TV information still to be announced). The Golden Gophers won over No. 7 Louisville, 86-67, led by guard Gabe Kalscheur who scored a game-high 24 points. The Spartans beat Minnesota at the Breslin Center earlier this season, 79-55 in the only matchup this season.
"Just the first game is always tough," point guard Cassius Winston said. "You've got to get used to the atmosphere, the arena, things like that."
Winston, the Big Ten player of the year, led all scorers with a game-high 26 points and played 38 minutes. Xavier Tillman finished with 16 and posted a game-best 11 rebounds. Matt McQuaid scored 10, including a 3-pointer with 3:31 left during the 9-0 run that helped MSU pull away.
Bradley guard Elijah Childs scored 19, and second-team All-Missouri Valley Conference point guard Darrell Brown finished with 17.
"I told the team, very proud of them," Bradley coach Brian Wardle said. "Their toughness, their competitiveness in this game, I don't think there are many teams that could have beat us today. I thought we might have ran into one that could."
Bradley went 6-for-9 from 3-point range to and held MSU to 36.7 percent shooting from the floor to enter halftime with a 35-34 lead. Winston scored 13 by the break and was the Spartans’ only shooter with more than four points.
Conner George, who’s appeared in 16 games all season mostly as a late-game substitution and hadn’t played since March 9, had to play in the last five minutes of the half after freshmen Aaron Henry and Gabe Brown each picked up two fouls.
George’s previous season high was four minutes against Oakland on Dec. 21.
"It's simple, yet we couldn't stop 'em," coach Tom Izzo said. "We couldn't do that. I felt bad for my assistants. They did a hell of a job on the report, and we didn't follow it as well. I think some of it was we've just had some bizarre lineups in there and we're trying to change things because of who we think we could have in the game, and that's not a great coaching job on my part."
After a flying one-handed slam for Childs to mark back-to-back field goals to open the second half, a 10-0 burst capped by a steal near midcourt and layup by Tillman gave MSU a 44-39 lead with 16:48 left left. Winston and McQuaid also had 3s during the run.
The Spartans were able to build their lead to 50-43, but three poor offensive sequences allowed a 9-0 Bradley run to give the Braves a 51-50 lead with 11:22 to play. The swing started after Dwayne Lautier-Ogunleye drained a triple and MSU’s inbound pass was stolen and laid up by Brown. Nick Ward was called for an offensive foul in MSU’s next possession setting up Brown’s third of four made triples.
The stretch triggered a 4:09 run in which MSU turned the ball over five times, four of which caused by Henry, who finished with eight points, three rebounds and three fouls.
"When you are a freshman now at this time of year, you don't make mental mistakes on things we're telling a guy which way he goes or not running back," Izzo said.
After the run, however, Bradley entered a 4:28 scoring drought, that allowed MSU its own 9-0 spurt to pull away and lead 63-55 with 2:34 remaining For the game, MSU and Bradley shot 42.6 and 42.3 percent, respectively, but the Spartans won the rebounding advantage, 36-26.
In that swing, Winston found McQuaid who came off a double screen at the right wing for the 3. Without contest, McQuaid's shot found the net easily.
"Coach saw something throughout the game and he called it in the huddle," McQuaid said. "Aaron went down, pinned (Brown) and I came up and hit the shot. Cassius gave me a good pass."