No. 7 Michigan State knocked off No. 10 USC to advance to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, using a strong second half to firmly put away the Trojans.
After an inconsistent showing in the regular season, MSU’s offense started off its first game of the tournament with a bang. Those offensive lulls that were all too common throughout the year were mostly absent in MSU’s win over USC, save for a couple stretches.
That impressive showing wasn’t a result of any one player - MSU found scoring from across the lineup. Led by graduate student forwardJoey Hauser’s 17 points, four Spartans found themselves in double-digits by the end of the afternoon. Guards senior Tyson Walker, junior A.J. Hoggard and sophomore Jaden Akins all notched at least ten points.
Contrary to the norm of the regular season, the offense wasn’t driven from the three ball. Michigan State drove to the basket often on the smaller Trojans. The Spartans went to the line 25 times as a result, although head men's basketball coach Tom Izzo is sure to be happy with a 60% free throw shooting percentage.
The Spartans started strong, leading for a majority of the first half. However, as the half progressed, the Trojans slowly started to pick up the pace. By the final two minutes, the two squads were trading leads, eventually heading to the locker room with a 34-34 tie and some pretty similar stat lines. MSU out-rebounded USC 16-14, but the Trojans shot 43% from three to the Spartans 25% and finished with one less turnover.
Michigan State was strong on both ends of the court for about three quarters of the first half. Defensively, the Spartans guarded with intensity, something that was lacking in last week’s loss to Ohio State. That clamping defense translated to the offense as well. Junior center Mady Sissoko blocked a shot, grabbed a rebound and Hauser notched a triple on the following sequence, taking an early 5-2 lead in a sequence that exemplified that balanced approach.
Offense came from a range of players in the opening minutes, with Sissoko and Akins both contributing. Akins was especially effective through the first 20, scoring six points highlighted by an athletic dunk in transition.
However, it was the usual suspects driving Michigan State’s offense for most of the first half. Hauser scored a team-high eight points by halftime, while Walker put up six shooting 3-4 from the field.
USC went on a run near the five minute mark of the first half, eventually tying things up with just over two minutes left. Michigan State’s offense could not find the same rhythm it had opened the game with, as the Trojans started to push the pace and play with some speed.
The tempo stayed high coming out of the locker room tied at 34. After an even few minutes, Michigan State’s offense finally found its way again. A rough sequence from Sissoko put freshman center Carson Cooper in the game. Cooper immediately made an impact, setting excellent screens so the likes of Walker and Akins could slither through the defense and drive to the basket. Cooper wasn’t just great off-ball – the freshman slammed back-to-back dunks roughly six minutes into the second to extend Michigan State’s lead to nine points.
USC just kept hanging around following that impressive sequence from MSU’s offense, but the Spartans were able to just stay just ahead for the middle portion of the second half. Michigan State found most of its offense in the interior, driving to the net and heading to the free throw line with frequency.
With five minutes left in the game, a three from Hauser gave Michigan State its second double-digit lead of the afternoon. Akins splashed a triple of his own on the following offensive possession, extending the lead to 15 and putting the Spartans firmly in the driver's seat.
USC took the lead back down to single-digits and resorted to fouling in the final minutes of the game. Michigan State missed multiple free throw attempts, leaving the door open for a miracle March comeback, but the Trojans couldn’t string together enough triples and baskets to really make the Spartans sweat.
The Spartans now move on to play the winner of Marquette and Vermont on Sunday in the round of 32.
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