It was an all-around total team effort for the No. 9 Michigan State Spartans (21-4, 10-2 Big Ten), who after a heart-breaking loss to Wisconsin last Sunday, rebounded nicely with a 85-70 home victory over the Northwestern Wildcats (12-13, 5-7).
In the first half of Thursday’s contest, things were played pretty evenly for the better part of the first ten minutes. Northwestern junior guard Jershon Cobb scored 12 points in the opening 9:11 of the game, keeping the Wildcats in it and the game tied at 19 a piece.
“I thought we were real shaky early defensively,” Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said. “(Drew) Crawford is such a good player…and Jershon Cobb has really come on. Those two guys chewed us up early, I thought. I was really impressed. I told my guys before the game that the difference in their team early and now is Cobb.”
However, Michigan State would then go on a 11-3 run to to go up 30-22, prompting a Northwestern timeout with 5:36 to go in the half. Out of the timeout, the Spartans continued to outplay the Wildcats, taking a nine point lead into the break, 39-30.
As the two teams came out in the second half, things turned into a 3-point barrage, as both sides were spot on from down town.
Once again, Cobb was the guy who was keeping the Wildcats in it, scoring the first ten points of the half for Northwestern, but the Spartans still led 52-40 at the 15:52 mark of the second half. From there, the Spartans would start to pull away, building their lead to as much as 19 in the second half, 65-46.
Cobb finished with 22 points, and Tre Demps and Drew Crawford had 18 points a piece but it wasn’t enough, as the Wildcats eventually fell to the Spartans, 85-70.
Seemingly everybody got into the action for Michigan State, who were once again with out the services of two key starters with both senior point guard Keith Appling and junior Branden Dawson sitting out due to injury.
Four players finished double-digits in scoring for the victorious Spartans, led by senior big man Adreian Payne, who scored 20 points and grabbed 14 rebounds in 33 minutes in just his third game back from a right ankle sprain that had him miss a month’s worth of games.
“I’d have to honestly say that I am a bit surprised,” Izzo said of Payne playing so well so fast coming back from injury. “He sure has been a monster. He’s getting rebounds like old times…In fact, I won’t say like old times, better than old times.”
Denzel Valentine added 16 points, 6 assists, and 5 rebounds for the Spartans while Gary Harris rebounded from quite possibly the worst game of his career against Wisconsin to chip with 14 points on 6 of 13 shooting.
Travis Trice also contributed nicely to the Spartan victory Thursday night, finishing with 11 points, 6 assists and his third straight turnover-free basketball game in relief of Appling.
“I think Travis is playing comfortably in that (PG) role,” Izzo said. “For the most part, he was really pushing the ball early. There’s no question that Travis is 10 times healthier than he was for really most of the year…he’s the healthiest he’s been and I think that’s a big reason for (his play).”
Trice also said after the game that this is the best he’s felt in a while, but as for the zero turnover number, it’s not something he pays a ton of attention to.
“I’m really just trying to concentrate on getting other guys involved, making other guys better and winning. Our thing right now is getting better as a team and if I can do that and at the end of the day I don’t have any turnovers, that’s a great day,” Trice said.
At the end of the day, playing without two of their starters, it was an impressive victory for Spartans, something Northwestern head coach Chris Collins certainly took note of after the game.
“I think, when healthy, I truly believe they’re the best team in the country,” Collins said of the MSU basketball team. “Hopefully they can get their guys back and it will be exciting to see what they can become because I feel they’re the best team when they have all their guys healthy.”
For Izzo, after hearing this praise, he didn’t quite know what to say to it, agreeing on one hand that he has a great team but also bringing up the point that, with all the injuries, they have to get a rotation down before anything.
“I like our chances if we get all our guys back, to be a very, very good basketball team,” Izzo said.
For Trice, he also shares the same sentiments as his coach.
“Our thing now is just try and get those guys (Appling and Dawson) back and just keep this thing moving because we feel like we’re getting better and we definitely want to win a National Championship and win a Big Ten Championship.”