It’s a few minutes into the second half and Michigan State is feeling good.
The team is up 38-26. Maryland’s offense can’t quite solve the Spartans’ defense with consistency and MSU’s starters are doing just enough on offense to give a comfortable double-digit cushion. The game even started off on the right foot, with MSU leaping to an early 15-0 lead.
Sure, the offense could’ve been flowing a little smoother, the players could’ve grabbed a couple more rebounds, but that’s basketball. After losing five of the last seven, this was starting to feel like a get-right game for MSU, something to settle down the team and get the season back on track.
Then, senior guard Tyson Walker is whistled for his third foul of the game. Straight to the bench.
Maryland scores some quick points, chipping away at MSU’s 12-point lead.
Graduate student forward Joey Hauser is whistled for his third foul of the game. Straight to the bench.
And Maryland comes storming back. After Walker went to the bench, the Terrapins exploded for a 14-0 run, taking the lead in the process. Michigan State had lost its two leading scorers, and it was showing.
“We’re not good enough to play without some of our best - I mean, our two leading scorers were on the bench and then we had A.J. on the bench for a while,” Head Coach Tom Izzo said. “We’re just not that good, although I don’t know who is anymore.”
Ultimately, MSU was able to win despite that terrible stretch. In fact, the duo in foul trouble - Hauser and Walker - combined for 37 points, doing it all on offense to secure victory in a pivotal conference matchup.
Walker was especially strong down the stretch. After scoring five points in the first, the senior guard scored 12 in the second, consistently generating his own looks and knocking down difficult shots.
“I think Tyson Walker is playing as good as any guard in the league,” Maryland Head Coach Kevin Willard said.
Hauser’s team-high 20 points were also essential. He scored 11 in the first half and splashed some key baskets in MSU’s resurgence late in the second.
Upon first glance at the stat sheet, it seems as though Walker and Hauser were really the only consistent pieces of Michigan State’s offense against Maryland. Senior forward Malik Hall had an uncharacteristically quiet seven-point night (although missing practice the day certainly explains that performance). MSU’s bigs, junior center Mady Sissoko and freshman forward Jaxon Kohler, did some good things on defense and ball screens but combined for just four points.
However, the point guard play from junior A.J. Hoggard cannot be overlooked. He wasn’t driving to the net or taking the game over in the waning minutes - this wasn’t like his 23-point night against Penn State back in December or his 16-point performance against Rutgers a few weeks back.
But Hoggard did exactly what a point guard is asked to do. He played floor general, finding and creating open shots for his best players all night. He finished with eight assists, 10 rebounds and just a pair of turnovers.
“I trust my shooters, and they came through,” Hoggard said. “I give them the credit for knocking down the shots. I just found them where they needed to be found.”
Hoggard’s showing against Maryland was the exact opposite of his game against Rutgers last Sunday. The point guard finished with eight points, five turnovers, one rebound and just two assists. Unsurprisingly, that terrible play from the offense’s leader resulted in one of the worst offensive performances of the year.
Michigan State needs Walker and Hauser to perform with consistency for the offense to work. That much was clear when the two were forced to the bench early against Maryland. It’s not all on the pair of senior leaders, though. Elite point guard play from Hoggard can unlock MSU’s best shooters and generate a rhythm on offense that the team desperately needs.
“Even when he’s not scoring the ball, he’s just such a great playmaker,” Hauser said. “He really helps us get downhill and find guys open.”