“We had a lot of adrenaline going into the game,” junior forward Xavier Tillman said. “Everybody was ready to play. It was just tough to make shots. You could just tell it was just going to be a tough night to make shots early on. We only had 23 points in the first half. My open threes weren't really going.”
After a week in which No. 16 Michigan State (16-8, 8-5 Big Ten) dropped two games as the favorite, coach Tom Izzo called a team meeting at 7:30 a.m., and the Spartans cited “passion for the game” and “energy” as sentiments propelling them into a rematch with Michigan Saturday, a 77-68 loss.
In the opening eight minutes, MSU shot 1-for-8 from the field and committed 6 turnovers. Tillman continued his point-blank struggles and missed on all three of his attempts from the outside on the afternoon. The contest remained scoreless through the first 2:30, as freshman forward Malik Hall traveled on a touch that almost certainly would’ve opened the scoring.
The Spartans would take the initial 1-0 lead, but in following the trend in its recent, largely self-inflicted struggles, MSU forfeited its short-lived advantage and would fail to see it for the rest of the game.
Their offensive flow has also been constant over the stretch. When the pieces click, like they did on Jan. 5 in MSU’s 87-69 win over Michigan, this team validates its once-lofty season expectations. When they don’t, senior guard Cassius Winston is left to create something from nothing in stagnant sets and futile ball screens.
“Teams pretty much do it every night, forcing it out of my hands,” Winston said. “That's what you got a team for though. Keep moving it. Keep getting guys involved. Guys made plays tonight. We just didn't make enough.”
This sentiment recurs in MSU’s losses this year and even dates back to the end of last year in the Final Four. Winston attempted to shoot the Spartans back into Saturday’s loss, but ultimately forced the issue, converting on only five of his 18 shot attempts.
Even with an efficient game from sophomore Aaron Henry (11 points on self-created attempts) and 17 points from the final third of its “Big Three” Tillman, MSU dug itself into too large of a deficit early.
“Not standing out there maybe looking for me to do something,” Winston said. “Everybody needs to be in attack mode, playing together.”
This is not to say MSU didn’t have its opportunities. Even after giving up seemingly every 50-50 board for 13 second-chance points, the Spartans remained within striking distance down the second half stretch. A pair of Tillman free throws capped a 5-0 run that brought MSU within one, and the Spartan bench rallied at the sight of the 31-30 score with over 17 minutes to play. But as Winston said, “we didn’t make those shots that we need.
“It's always tougher when you lose a game instead of a team beating you,” Winston said. “Michigan played really well tonight. They made some things happen, but I feel like there's a lot of things that were in our control that we could've did better.
“The good thing about it is that it was in our control. So that means there's something to fix.”
The caveat is that this sentiment keeps resurfacing.