Although the matchup at Little Caesars Arena served as a home game for Oakland, Michigan State enjoyed an obvious home welcome from the Detroit crowd Saturday.
When sophomore forward Gabe Brown slammed a lob from junior forward Xavier Tillman, followed it up with a three-point play and completed a 15-3 run with 11:10 left in the first half to give the Spartans a 19-9 lead, MSU’s advantage became apparent for the first time in the contest.
“Have you seen Gabe dunk? I love to see Gabe dunk,” Tillman said. “So any chance that I can get to give Gabe the ball on the fast break or give Gabe the ball to cut to the rim, I'm going to give it to him because I'm going to do a little two-handed dunk and that's going to be that, but Gable will flush it. So any chance I get, I want to give it to him because he gives us momentum every time he goes up for a dunk.”
Still, the Spartans missed out on many similar opportunities, as senior guard Cassius Winston lofted lobs to sophomore forward Marcus Bingham Jr., senior forward Kyle Ahrens, and freshman forward Malik Hall, who each failed to convert the feed into points.
“That's a shame because (Winston) made some great passes, some great lobs,” Izzo said. “I mean, that's a day when you hope to have 10 assists and we didn't do a very good job of finishing for him."
Winston finished with four assists.
“We had a couple of lobs to Kyle Ahrens, right through their hands,” Izzo said. “And those plays are game-changing, momentum-changing, crowd-changing plays.”
For a team struggling to shoot from the three, and having shot 31.5% from beyond the arc in its losses, including 19.2% against Kentucky and 25% against Duke, these momentum swings are crucial.
MSU’s defensive lapses at possible turning points were more notable against Kentucky, as the Spartans ceded points on one-score possessions in the dwindling minutes, and this notion is one Tillman continued on postgame.
“Most of those (momentum swings) happen on the defensive end where we'd hit a big shot and we'd just come down and give up a crucial bucket,” Tillman said. “That's something that we definitely improved on. Our defense was sound the whole night.”
As uncertainty beyond the three-point line mounts, concern inside the arc has gradually subsided as this season has progressed. Bingham Jr. has performed nicely when called upon to start, and fellow sophomore forward Thomas Kithier has provided steadiness where the Spartans lack explosiveness.
Kithier finished with eight points on 4-of-4 shooting and eight rebounds. Izzo expressed satisfaction with his and Bingham’s play Saturday and so far this season.
“(Kithier) should have played more,” Izzo said. “He played well. He defended well. He rebounded well. He scored well. That was a positive. Bingham takes a lot of crap from everybody, but he's getting better and we're going to need that size sometime. That was the first time we played Julius (Marble) much and I still liked Julius. So, it's going to be by committee at that four spot.”
Brown also spoke highly of his fellow forward’s play, not just as it pertained to this game.
“He’s a bucket,” Brown said. “I'm calling it now. My boy’s a bucket. But he did real good out there. I'm proud of him.”