EAST LANSING — It’s not every day that a Tom Izzo coached team is outmuscled and outworked.
But in first-ranked Michigan State’s 79-65 home loss to North Carolina on Wednesday night, outmuscled and outworked may be putting it nicely as the Tar Heels (5-2) — who have beaten an AP No. 1 team for a record 13 times — completely annihilated the Spartans (7-1) in the paint, as they outscored them 44-28 and outrebounded them 49-38.
“Well, probably one of the more disappointing performances during my career here to be honest with you,” Izzo said. “I just thought from the opening jump ball they kind of took it to us. And I mentioned that we haven’t been practice real well and that led to not playing very well, and I can’t think of a time where I’ve been more disappointed in maybe myself, I mean, it’s my job. We looked like a softer team. That solely falls on me, nobody else.”
Despite a packed home crowd, and a big-time matchup against one of the college basketball’s most prestigious programs, the Spartans started off the game very sluggish and stagnant on both ends of the floor.
The Tar Heels started the game on a 14-4 run that consisted of six offensive rebounds that led to eight points. Michigan State had four turnovers during that same time span and didn’t get its first field goal until sophomore Matt Costello — who started the game on the bench due to an illness that MSU believes is a slight case of mononucleosis — scored about four minutes into the game.
“Today, Michigan State did not want it that much more than we did,” North Carolina head coach Roy Williams said.
Izzo’s response: “I agree with him 100 percent. We characteristically looked soft.”
The Spartans were able to battle back and tie the game up with 1:39 left in the half when Adreian Payne — who had 16 points and eight rebounds while battling fatigue and cramps — hit a 3-pointer. The score was 32-all going into the break.
Michigan State came out with a similar start in the second half as they had in the first, and as the game went on, UNC’s size and athleticism was too much.
Despite tying the game four times, Michigan State never led once, and a lot of that had to do with the interior play of the Tar Heels.
J.P. Tokoto led the way for UNC with 12 points and 10 rebounds (first career double-double), and Kennedy Meeks added 15 points — 6-of-8 from the field– and seven rebounds.
While the Spartans were outfought for a large portion of the game, they were hampered by injuries, and various health issues, that were clearly a factor late in the game.
Gary Harris has been battling a lingering ankle injury since the summer, and it was evident today that he’s nowhere near 100 percent healthy. Payne — aside from cramps — has been dealing with plantar fasciitis in his foot, Costello has an illness, and senior point guard Keith Appling went down with a hip injury in the first half.
“I feel like that wouldn’t be nothing but an excuse,” Appling, who had 13 points on 5-of-15 shooting, said about all of the health issues on the team. “At the end of the day, we play Spartan basketball and you’re going to get hurt. You’re going to have to fight through certain injuries. That’s why we all depend on one another to pick each other up when we’re down. I feel like that’s nothing but an excuse. We just gotta continue to play as hard as we can.
“We just didn’t bring it tonight. Those guys came out and hit us in our mouth the first couple minutes of the game and we didn’t do a great job recovering from it.”
The Spartans had an opportunity to start the year 8-0 for the first time since the 2000-2001 season, but who would have thought the reasons behind their first blunder of the year would be the two things that have made MSU basketball such a nationally-respected program: rebounding and energy.
“We should have won,” said Costello, who had six points, four rebounds and four blocks in his best game as a Spartan. “We are a better team, we just played like crap. It was all energy. Guys were walking up and down the court, not even the fact we shot however we shot from the field, it was all energy. That was the only thing that messed us up.”
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