MADISON, Wis. — After a dreadfully slow start for Michigan State men's basketball, an early second-half scoring run, led by freshman guard Rocket Watts, almost brought the game into the hands of the Spartans, but the Badgers wouldn't let the game go on their own court. Wisconsin topped MSU 64-63 Saturday afternoon in Madison to continue a difficult season on the road for Big Ten teams.
It looked as if Michigan State had dug themselves into a hole too deep to climb out of in the first. The Spartans entered halftime down by 16, starting the competition going 4-for-12 from the three and shooting 33.3% overall, while Wisconsin drained a solid 57.7% of their own in the first.
“(Wisconsin) deserved to win," Head Coach Tom Izzo said. "We were having I think the worst half of basketball defensively that I think we've played. ... It was a complete energy problem, my best players really struggled. Thank God for Rocket (Watts) and for Malik (Hall), my two freshmen.”
Watts, who started in place of an ill sophomore forward Gabe Brown, pulled the Spartans out of their three-point curse late in the first and he never slowed down.
The 6-foot-2-inch Detroit native put up a career-high 16 points at the Kohl Center, sinking four threes in times when the Spartans needed it most.
“I feel like our leaders were getting tired and everybody was running out of gas, so I just had to start being aggressive and make something happen," Watts said. "(Wisconsin was) making shots on their end so I feel like I had to do something for my team, and I feel like I did that, we just came up short.”
The second half started out polar opposite of the first.
Wisconsin started the half with a dunk, but then fell into a six-minute scoring drought. In the meantime, the Spartans rode a 13-0 run to bring the game within three with 11 minutes to go.
Junior forward Xavier Tillman desperately tried to pull the Spartans ahead, but after missing two good looks, the offensive energy converted back to the Badgers’ side. Wisconsin pulled away again, taking back a 10-point lead with 8:13 left.
Hungry for redemption, Tillman came back with an assist to freshman forward Malik Hall up the alley and then sunk a three for himself. However, overall the Spartan big struggled, going 3-for-15 and committing two turnovers.
Defensively, Tillman had a hard time reading the game of Wisconsin's junior forward Nate Reuvers, who led the Badgers with 15 points.
“I felt sorry for Xavier," Izzo said. "You can't miss that many layups. I felt sorry for him I really did, I know how much he cares. ... That’s the shame of basketball. That looks like why we lost the game. We lost the game in the first half because we guarded nobody, so then you give a team energy, a fan base energy and for you, as the press, that’s where the game is lost.”
The Spartans kept it close in the final seconds of an electric Kohl Center. Senior guard Cassius Winston, who led MSU with 23 points, sunk an almost buzzer-beating three to put the Spartans down by just one before time ran out.
Once again, the Spartans slow start proved too difficult to make up for as MSU dropped their fourth road game this season.
“We can’t dig ourselves in those holes," Winston said. "It leaves room for error when you’re trying to make a huge comeback like that, so it’s hard to get out of that hole.”
MSU will return back to East Lansing to host Penn State on Feb. 4.