EVANSTON, IL. - Leading by just four with 43 seconds to go, Michigan State men's basketball was at risk of blowing a 16-point second-half lead. But thanks to six straight made free throws to end the game, MSU was able to hold on tight and secure a 77-72 win over Northwestern (5-5 overall, 0-2 Big Ten) in their first Big Ten road game of the season.
To start the game, senior guard Cassius Winston sunk back-to-back threes, a harbinger of better shooting on the night for a Spartan team that had struggled to shoot from distance all season. The team was able to put up a 42.9% performance from the three, their best since playing Georgia on Nov. 26.
Junior forward Xavier Tillman and sophomore forward Gabe Brown both put up double-doubles for the Spartans. The pair both snatched 10 rebounds that contributed to the Spartans 48-24 advantage on the glass, good for their second-best rebounding performance this season.
“Credit to him, man, he puts in the work, he deserves it," Winston said on Brown's first career double-double. "He earned every bit of that so I’m proud of him to get out there, make some plays.”
But despite the stand-out night for some Spartans, 16 turnovers from MSU handed the Wildcats 24 of their points, proving to be a major factor in what kept the Wildcats competitive until the end.
"That's the difference in the game, you're not going to be any good if you keep doing that," coach Tom Izzo said explaining that he wishes the team put the same amount of focus on turnover prevention as they have rebounding dominance.
After one of his best performances of the season against Oakland, sophomore forward Aaron Henry struggled. Henry shot 1-for-9 for the night with six turnovers.
“I had some crucial plays on offense when I just missed shots, turned the ball over and just wasn’t in the right spot," the Indianapolis native said. "You could point that finger at me, I’d be alright with it, I'm going to get better."
Despite his offensive struggles, Henry did contribute eight rebounds that Izzo seemed to be content with.
The Spartans raced to an early lead, scoring the first eight points of the game, however this early lead prompted MSU to get sloppy midway through the half and, after three straight turnovers, allowed Northwestern to cut MSU's lead to 23-20 with 8:01 remaining in the first half.
Led by Winston, who put 21 points and 6 assists up for the Spartans Wednesday night, MSU managed to come back and reclaim a 37-27 lead going into the half as Northwestern continued to struggle to shoot.
Michigan State came back strong from the half and took their biggest lead of the game, 47-31, with 14:56 remaining.
Once again though, the Spartans found themselves too comfortable, allowing a 10-0 Wildcat scoring run to cut the lead to just six with 13:22 left.
“It’s frustrating because that’s one area we really have to work on, turning it over," Brown said. "They're scoring off of those turnovers so we got to really work on that.”
Freshman guard Boo Buie led the Wildcats with 26 points off the bench.
The slim victory puts the Spartans at 2-0 in Big Ten play, good for the only unbeaten mark in the conference (this win was the first conference road win of the Big Ten season by any team) but Izzo isn't satisfied yet.
"When I go home for Christmas there's no rings or banners under the tree for 2-0, it's just a nice start," Izzo said. "We've got a long way to go if we're going to be the team that we need to be."
The Spartans will return back home to take on Eastern Michigan on Dec. 21. The game marks the start of a five-game home stretch for the Spartans.