Last week, Michigan State approached the United Center confident with its double-bye ready to take on the No. 13 seed Buckeyes. However, once the game tipped off, the Buckeyes climbed ahead and MSU hit a wall.
While most fans attributed the loss to a poor offensive performance, head men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo disagreed.
Izzo was disappointed in the team’s efforts offensively, but believed the defense was what ultimately cost his team the game. The Spartans lacked confidence on the defensive end, the necessary drive just wasn’t there for a potential Big Ten Tournament run.
As soon as Friday’s game began, it was clear that the No.7 seed team had learned its lesson. The Spartans got off to a hot start almost immediately with a huge block turned rebound for junior center Mady Sissoko. Sissoko dished the ball to Hoggard who sent it to graduate student forward Joey Hauser for a bucket from deep.
“We got our mojo back,” Izzo said. “It's been no secret we haven’t been pleased with our defense. I would say for 32-33 minutes I thought it was exceptional.”
Momentum from the opening minutes carried into the most of the first half. As halftime approached, the Trojans quietly climbed back, tying it up.
However, the Spartans got cooking as soon as the second half commenced, and their defense was stellar.
“We know that defense wins games,” sophomore guard Jaden Akins said. “We had a couple lulls late this season but we really didn’t want to go home today.”
Freshman center Carson Cooper got in on the action, defending ball screens and efficiently guarding USC center redshirt junior forward Joshua Morgan.
Although Cooper was thrilled to play in his first NCAA tournament matchup, nerves set in as the game tipped off. USC’s absence of a dominant big in the middle somewhat calmed those nerves, allowing for increased confidence from the freshman standout and the rest of MSU’s big men.
“Especially knowing that they didn’t have as big of a post presence,” Cooper said. “All three of us (Cooper, Sissoko and Kohler) had to step up and play a big part, and I think we did that and this was probably our best showing for the three bigs.”
Akins had an impressive performance on both ends of the floor. The starting guard notched 12 points, six rebounds (four defensive and two offensive) and three steals throughout the matchup.
Hauser was another standout player. He played gritty defensively, especially down the stretch. The veteran player collected a team-high eight rebounds and 17 points.
“The energy, urgency and the chemistry that we had,” freshman center Jaxon Kohler said. “Things were clicking for us and when they were clicking we wanted to emphasize and get our energy up.”
Junior forward Malik Hall did a nice job of containing USC fifth year guard Drew Peterson, limiting him to a measly 11 points in the matchup. Just as Izzo expected, Hall’s versatility was key, especially on the defensive end of the floor against USC's starting guard.
“We knew with them it was going to be a lot of one-on-one defense,” senior guard Tyson Walker said. “They run good sets but ultimately it comes down to one on one. Just trying to stop your man, we did good with the help defense … just staying focused.”
The Spartans will return to Nationwide Arena on Sunday to take on the winner of the Marquette versus Vermont matchup on Sunday. Tipoff time will be announced Friday evening.