The celebration in Michigan State’s locker room reverberated throughout the Breslin Center following the No. 10 Spartans’ narrow victory over Minnesota. It was so loud it reminded Michigan State Head Coach Tom Izzo of a championship celebration.
Michigan State hollered in delight after escaping with its ninth-straight victory, thanks to late-game heroics from redshirt senior forward Joey Hauser, who scored the game-winning layup with 0.1 seconds remaining, propelling MSU to a 71-69 victory over the Gophers.
“The locker room was (loud),” Izzo said with a half-smile. “But you know why? They were happy for Joey. And that's pretty cool.”
For most of last year into the first months of this season, Hauser was a majority of Spartan fans' scapegoat for the team's struggles: "Another shooting big that transferred in that can’t shoot." "He’s too slow to play defense." "We will never win with Hauser starting."
The harsh criticisms came flying in from every nook and cranny of the Spartan fanbase and Izzo said it negatively affected Hauser last year. But, he’s been able to silence the noise this year. He added he hopes the fans chanting “Hauser” after the final whistle were not the same ones demanding he transfers only weeks before.
“I appreciate all the fans that chanted his name, as long as none of them were the ones that were writing the stuff they wrote last year,” Izzo said. “If they were, they can take a leap. But if not, I appreciate those guys because the kid has done a lot of the little things for us this year and he's definitely getting better.”
Hauser’s game-winner comes after months of nonstop work from Hauser to improve in all facets of his game, or the little things as Izzo put it. His teammates, who witnessed the work he put in, were ready to celebrate Hauser’s big moment more than Hauser himself.
“Joey deserves this moment; 100%,” freshman guard Max Christie said.
“I was kind of happy for him, I was excited,” sophomore guard A.J. Hoggard, who had the dump-off pass to set up Hauser, said. “I was glad I got to be a part of it; to be the assist-man on the job.”
And what did the first game-winner in his college career, and possibly his whole life, mean to the man who has weathered the heat of MSU’s passionate fanbase?
“I'm just gonna keep doing my thing, working hard,” Hauser said. “I'm not really worried about what people are saying but I know my teammates got my back. That's why I was so happy to be in that moment. I was happy that they were happy for me because it has been a little bit of struggle shooting the ball but I feel like I'm still doing things that help this team win—rebound the ball, (make) layups and dump offs like that—so keep doing my thing. But it was really an awesome moment for me and I was just glad to have really awesome teammates.”
The plan was not, however, to have Hauser taking the final shot. When Izzo called a timeout with 18 seconds remaining, to draw up MSU’s final play with the game tied, the plan was for senior guard Gabe Brown to take the final shot.
The initial design, Izzo said, was to get the ball in Brown’s hands coming off a screen at the top of the three-point arc and let him either shoot, drive or dump the ball inside to Hauser on the left block.
The play began to break down after Brown was denied the ball, slipping the initial screen and flaring to the top of the key. Hoggard improvised and swung the ball to Christie with 10 seconds left, who was in the right corner.
Christie tried to go downhill with his left hand but was cut off and forced to give the ball back to Hoggard at the top of the three-point arc as the clock read four seconds remaining.
Without hesitating, Hoggard burned past Minnesota senior guard Payton Willis, who closed out hard, taking away the three. Hoggard’s drive drew the attention of both of Minnesota’s bigs, who were looking to swat Hoggard’s layup and send the game to overtime. But as Minnesota’s rim protectors left their feet, the ball was already dumped off to a wide-open Hauser who laid the ball in calmly with his left hand with just a tenth of a second remaining.
“We had a play drawn up, we were trying to get Gabe open for a shot,” Hauser said. “It kind of didn't work out and A.J. made a really good play going downhill and dumped it off to me and I knew I had to take that shot. It really wasn't drawn for me but the way it worked out shows how connected we were at the end there.”
The play was emblematic of Hauser’s growth in his second year in the MSU program. Hauser said he focused on improving so he could help the team any way possible, whether it was defense, rebounding or setting hard screens. Tonight, it was the focus on his offensive positioning which put him in the right place at the right time to hit the first game-winning shot of his life.
The shot also was the final note of Hauser's 10-minute stretch playing center. Izzo said he decided to go small to switch against ball screens more effectively and was happy with how he handled the challenge of guarding Minnesota's redshirt senior Eric Curry before he left the game with a left ankle injury. That was the story of Hauser tonight until he found the ball in his hands with just over a second left.
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Thanks to the late-game heroics from Hauser, Michigan State was able to extend its winning streak to nine games and preserve its undefeated record in Big Ten play (5-0). It was yet another win where MSU played far from its best but found a way to make winning plays when it mattered most.
Tonight, the Spartans’ struggles were all defense. MSU could not contain Willis or senior guard E.J. Stephens on dribble-drives, forcing MSU bigs to crash leading to a season-high 12 offensive rebounds for Minnesota, who ranked last in the country coming into tonight in offensive rebounding percentage, according to KenPom.
Despite its struggles defensively, the Spartans found yet another way to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, which has been a recurring theme in the first two and a half months of the season.
“I think there's something to be said for we found a way to win a game that wasn't like we didn't deserve to win,” Izzo said. “I mean, we shot really well but I wasn't happy with our performance.”
However, Izzo said Michigan State’s luck will run out sooner rather than later and the team needs to make improvements swiftly to be considered a true contender.
“We're going to get better,” Izzo said to close his post-game comments. “We're just gonna have to get better quickly. Because pretty soon you get the steady diet of the Wednesday, Saturday, Tuesday, Friday (games). A steady diet of that is coming up and we're gonna have to get tougher and we're gonna have to get better defensively. Our consistency hasn't been good.”
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