The No. 11 Michigan State Spartans (6-3), looking to bounce back from a lackluster performance and loss against No. 10 Duke, started their Big Ten play on Sunday evening, welcoming Rutgers (6-3) to the Breslin Center. The green and white were able to pull away as the second period ran down securing a 77-65 victory in what was a back-and-forth bout through a majority of the game.
Senior guard Cassius Winston provided a team high 23 points and seven assists, while junior forward Xavier Tillman added a 14 point, nine rebound performance.
"We beat a good team, a physical team and we didn't shoot our best," coach Tom Izzo said. "There was only one way we could've won that game and it was to be strong enough, get to the line, make your free throws, we did a hell of a job of that and rebound the daylights out of the ball and we did a hell of a job of that."
Michigan State started the game out both fast and strong. The first points of the game was a slam by sophomore forward Marcus Bingham Jr. just 27 seconds into the game.
Winston aided in the Spartans' early efforts, with five points through the first five minutes.
Even with the Spartans fast-paced offense, Rutgers was able to keep things close enough to see the Spartans shots stop dropping and their mistakes add up.
The Spartans failed to pull ahead and Rutgers were able to capitalize in the first half, keeping the game within reaching distance.
Following a three from sophomore forward Aaron Henry with 8:55 left in the first half, the Spartans went quiet from the field. A one for ten drought, including seven straight missed field goals pushed Rutgers back into the game, and handed them a 28-27 lead with 2:57 left in the first period.
Sophomore guard Ron Harper Jr. would act as the Scarlet Knights catalyst, scoring seven of his nine points in the first half.
The lead switch seemed to spark a sense of urgency in the Spartans, as they would clamp down and go on a 6-0 run, finishing the half on top 33-28.
The Spartans ability to get to the line, and keep Rutgers from it, proved crucial in regaining and retaining a lead, as field goals were scarce. Michigan State would end the half 8-10 from the free throw line.
Starting the second period, both teams would remain stagnant.
Whatever urgency the Spartans felt going into the half, couldn't help them extend and keep a large lead. Three Spartan turnovers by the fifteen-minute mark again prevent them from closing the door on Rutgers.
Michigan State would try to open up the game with 14:26 left. Back-to-back three pointers courtesy of senior forward Kyle Ahrens and Winston gave them a 43-32 lead.
Again the Spartans would shoot themselves in the foot and give Rutgers an opportunity to claw back. Following Winstons' three, Rutgers would go on a 12-2 run. The run consisted of five Spartan misses and a turnover. Seven of Rutgers' ten points during the run came from the free-throw line.
The mistakes would hack away at the Spartans lead, putting the game back within one point with 9:48 remaining.
Behind a strong 17-point bench perfomance from graduate forward Akwasi Yeboah, Rutgers was able to take advantage of the Spartans hiccups and keep the game within single digits up until the 44 second mark.
On the shoulders of Tillman and Winston, the Spartans were able to find a consistent source of points. While they were unable to push the game out of reach until the final two minutes of the game, both of the Spartans were able to produce enough to keep the Rutgers down.
Thanks to the effort from the free throw line and from Winston and Tillman late, the Spartans began to find some breathing room, as the clock ran down, but were unable to run the score up due to their mistakes.
The Spartans earned their victory, grinding a close one out and pull away from Rutgers late despite their mistakes.
"There was no flow to the game, I think part of that was because everytime we got a little lead, a couple of those turnovers were dumb turnovers at dumb times," Izzo said. "A couple times we made plays and missed some shots, layups.
"That was the difference in the game, we could never spread it open. But dominating, right now this team isn't going to dominate anybody. It was almost good for us to have to grind one out, because we are gonna have to do that for awhile until we get back on track."
Despite the struggles and constant search for the Spartan team that was ranked No.1 preseason, the 77-65 victory put the Spartans at 1-0 in Big Ten play and gave them their sixth win of the season.
The Spartans will shift their focus away from Big Ten play, as they head back on the road on Saturday Dec. 14, to meet in-state opponent the Oakland Grizzlies. The Michigan matchup will be aired on ESPN2 and tip-off is set for 12 p.m..