The three-day Battle 4 Atlantis College Basketball Tournament felt more like a monumental stretch late in March in the NCAA tournament rather than a quick trip to the Bahamas over Thanksgiving break. Anxiety hung in the air of the Atlantis ballroom while the Spartans battled it out with other teams with title aspirations.
The memorable moments for MSU would’ve been the highlights of a late-season tournament run.
It all started with the career performance from junior wing Malik Hall in the win against Loyola, capped off with the game-winning alley-oop to senior center Marcus Bingham Jr. Then came the physically imposing battle with UConn that MSU pulled out late with a closing 14-3 run. Even in the loss to the reigning national champion Baylor Bears, the hot shooting in the first half had the team buzzing.
Even though it’s November, there were plenty of signs of a legitimate tournament team in Michigan State.
“Coming into a tournament like this you hope to get something out of it that your team can learn from,” MSU Head Coach Tom Izzo said. “I told them I thought we played two and a half games worth of pretty good basketball.”
Despite the moments of brilliance, Michigan State still fell handily to Baylor in the championship, 75-58. After trailing by two at halftime, the Spartans fell apart in the final 20 minutes to return from the Caribbean as runner-ups.
Michigan State did show mental resilience in the first two games of the tournament and was able to overcome the mistakes that have been common for this team. Against Loyola, MSU had a season-high 20 turnovers — including nine on 10 possessions in the first half — but still found ways to come back in the second half thanks to Hall and Bingham’s heroics.
Against UConn, it was the long stretches of empty possessions that put the Spartans behind late. If MSU did not flip the switch and close with a run late, it would have been a loss defined by the poor shooting (32.1%) that kept them off the board for most of the second half.
The problems that have been apparent throughout the young season popped up again Friday morning but proved to be too much for MSU to conquer against a team like Baylor.
After escaping with narrow wins in the first two games, Baylor did not ease up on MSU whatsoever. 19 turnovers and long stretches of incompetent offense in the second half prevented Michigan State from being able to keep up, leading to Baylor outsourcing the Spartans 37-22 in the second half.
“I'd rather be mentally tough and physically weak than mentally weak and physically tough,” Izzo said after the loss. “And today was a day when we did not show it mentally. So I'll go back and we're going to harp on that and we're going to talk about it.”
The loss to Baylor highlighted the areas where Michigan State needs to continue to improve moving down the stretch of the season. It showed how detrimental turnovers can be against a team that is not as willing to give the ball back. It showed how the scoring droughts can effectively end a game against a team that consistently scores.
Baylor continued its torrid pace in the second half down the stretch, scoring 37 in the second half after putting up 38 in the first. On the other hand, MSU was a tale of two halves. The Spartans hung with them step for step early, scoring 36 in the first half, but fell off a cliff in the second, only scoring 22. The Spartans field goal percentage plummeted from 51.9% to 36.8% in the final 20 minutes.
“A.J. (Hoggard) struggled at the point,” Izzo said. “Turnovers and that were a problem, we need to get guys some open shots. And then Marcus, and really, Malik struggled a little bit.”
The second half was not all bad for MSU though. It was as well the breakout game for freshman guard Jaden Akins, who had a career-high 12 points and three rebounds in 18 minutes in the championship. Akins played more minutes to fill in for the struggling Hoggard and ran with the opportunity.
The high-flying freshman brought energy to the tired Spartans with his lively plays on both ends. He said after the game that he wanted to focus on playing with energy because it would lead to good things, all of which came true against Baylor.
“I take a lot of pride in playing with energy because sometimes I can't control if my shots are falling but I feel like I can always control how much energy I bring,” Akins said.
The energy, coupled with the shots falling (Akins was 6-9 from the field) led to the breakout game for Akins. It was the final positive moment for the Spartans in a tournament that will have Izzo re-evaluating the roles on the team moving forward.
“We're gonna leave here feeling really good about a lot of things,” Izzo said. “But I haven't felt good about our turnovers since the season started. So we're gonna have to look at making some adjustments there and we will.”
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