Exactly one month prior to Michigan State men’s basketball’s 67-60 loss against Maryland, freshman guard Rocket Watts said he was starting to “let the game come to him,” and since then his momentum hasn’t slowed down.
With a career-high 21 points at Illinois on Feb. 11, Watts showed his improving eye at the basket, but on Saturday against Maryland, he showed a different side to his versatility as a player — his defensive toughness.
“I thought Rocket Watts played unbelievable defense,” coach Tom Izzo said. “Sometimes you need somebody else to step up and the only guy that’s stepping up and he missed a couple of shots bad but I’ll take Rocket’s energy and how hard he plays. He missed some shots but I can live with that. At least he competed. I didn’t think some guys competed like they needed to compete.”
Behind junior forward Xavier Tillman and senior guard Cassius Winston, the Spartans have struggled to find a third man on their roster who can provide consistency. On Saturday night, the sole pairing of Tillman and Winston put up 23 of the Spartans' 31 first-half points.
But for the second straight game, and his second straight performance back in the starting lineup, Watts started to look like that much needed third man.
Although quiet in the first half due to early foul trouble, Watts came out in the second with energy.
“I play hard all the time that’s how I got the fouls in the first half,” Watts said.
After sophomore forward Aaron Henry’s dunk electrified the start of the second half for the green and white, Watts found his way to make two straight. The Detroit native snatched three rebounds following a first half where MSU trailed 22-13 from the boards.
“They were outrebounding us by a lot and we weren’t crashing the glass or playing good defense,” Watts said. “I feel like in the second half we came out better and that’s how we got back into the game.”
Trailing at the half, the Spartans were able to bring themselves the lead late in the second. However, a 14-0 run by Maryland, led by an uncontested 11 points from senior guard Anthony Cowan Jr. in the game’s final minutes handed the victory over to the Terrapins.
Watts said he put much of the blame for Cowan Jr.’s dominant performance on himself.
“I feel like I’ve grown a lot but I don’t feel like this was my best defensive game because he (Cowan Jr.) still had 24 points, and I feel like that was on my end because I came out and got quick fouls and got taken out of the game,” Watts said. “I just tried to pick it up second half and I think I did a great job in the beginning of the second half but when it counted it didn’t hit, so I feel like I did a poor job.”
Izzo said he wanted to apologize to his 2000 National Championship team who sat as spectators for Saturday's game. For a team known for their rebounding dominance, Izzo said he felt embarrassed about the way his new squad performed at the boards.
The Spartans will hit the road once again to take on Nebraska at 8:30 p.m. on Feb. 20.
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