Monday, November 29, 2021

Column: Did that just happen? Yeah, it did.

March 7, 2021
<p>After an upset over No. 2 Michigan on March 7, 2021, Spartan Head Coach Tom Izzo shares a moment with the small crowd.</p>

After an upset over No. 2 Michigan on March 7, 2021, Spartan Head Coach Tom Izzo shares a moment with the small crowd.

Photo by Devin Anderson-Torrez | The State News

On Thursday afternoon, did anyone really think the Spartans had a chance?

A four-star recruit and point guard that looked like the next great MSU guard last season before it was cut short – got benched with 17 minutes to play in the second half of a blowout on Thursday night.

Everything changed just days later.

Sunday comes around: A walk-on plays important minutes in a make-or-break game for the Spartans. Rocket Watts, the aforementioned next-best-thing, gets hot from the start.

We're talking volcanically steaming — he scores 21 points and plays 33 minutes, his most all season.

It was the pull-up, the catch and shoot, floater ... if you can define whatever the Detroit native was doing with the basketball Sunday, he probably did it. He shot 8-of-16 and scored his most points since Dec. 1, 2020, against Duke and according to Tom Izzo postgame, the sophomore's mother also attended a game for the first time in his collegiate career.

I can just close my laptop and stop writing now.

This was the Watts that no one saw coming and everyone watching knew MSU needed to pull off this 70-64 upset of Michigan at the Breslin Center. It seemed from the jump that Watts was out on the floor to do one thing and one thing only: Win. The. Game.

And he did that, albeit nearly losing it as his toes grazed the white-stripe sideline in the final minute with Michigan only down a few points. He made everything happen that wasn't each game, after game, after game for much of the season and jumped into the phone booth between Thursday and Sunday to pop out the superhero that swooped in to save MSU's dreams of earning an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.

He wasn't alone either.

Aaron Henry, who is herculean in his own right when MSU needs him most, had 18 points. It was quiet, not the loud "I'm going to score on you" playstyle we saw from Watts as he rose up for a jumper off each ball screen and snaked his way to the cup.

It was the timely steals on entry passes by Henry and Marcus Bingham Jr. — who combined for four in the game — or Bingham's eight rebounds that just came at every opportune time.

It was the late 3-pointer by the old dude who sparked this late-season revival and the 23 free-throw attempts that helped slow down a game MSU had to light on fire and stomp all over to win. It was one of the most complete games the now 15-11 Spartans have played the entire season. Were there flaws? Yes. Michigan will not have their best player and his backup combine for nine fouls on an average night. That and the injury to Eli Brooks early in the game were gargantuan moments that changed the outcome of Sunday's game.

But time and time again, MSU was at the right place at the right time in the game. The attitude against Illinois and Ohio State was back and the team that looked like its tank was empty on Thursday decided they weren't finished. It isn't what I saw coming, even if Michigan wrapped up the conference regular-season title in the previous game. It's a rivalry game and we all know that means anything can happen — you throw out every record, stat, it didn't matter Sunday and this was a perfect example of that.

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I was reminded of Cassius Winston's 32 point and nine-assist gem that solidified MSU as one of the best teams in the country last year when Watts pulled up for his final jump shot of the day to nearly triple his season average of 7.3 points per game.

MSU has either Maryland or Rutgers in its first game in the Big Ten Tournament on March 11. I don't know if MSU will get in for sure, they probably need to win that first game of the little dance if you want to get into the big one.

MSU is No. 72 in NET Rankings as of Sunday afternoon, with that number likely rising.

March is like this. It's where sinking ships come to float, MSU's student body burns couches and teams with nothing to lose find ways to win.

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I think we can all finally find some common ground: MSU is going to go dancing.

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