EAST LANSING – This game was almost exactly as advertised.
Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman: stifling on defense and prolific on offense. As advertised. Tom Izzo: calculating game manager, passionate coach. As advertised. The Spartan faithful: loud. Like, really loud. As advertised.
Michigan, too, was just as advertised. The Wolverines played with plenty of juice, the excitement of this rivalry seeming to fuel them, and for a while, they stayed with Michigan State.
But eventually, it was too much for them. Tillman and Winston were too dynamic on offense, their arms and hands somehow everywhere at once on defense. Izzo was too experienced with this game and with this Michigan program, his game plan capitalizing on the scoring droughts that have plagued these Wolverines all season.
And so, No. 12 Michigan fell to in-state archrival No. 14 Michigan State, 87-69, at the Breslin Center on Sunday. The offense struggled to put the ball in the basket and the defense could not contain the Spartans’ top scoring threats.
Just as advertised.
“I think we hesitated a lot, and second-guessed ourselves, which kind of helps us to miss,” said sophomore forward Brandon Johns, Jr., who had 12 points and two rebounds on the day. “I think we need to be more confident when we’re shooting. It’s a mental thing. We just have to stay mentally strong, mentally composed.
“The more we do that, the more our shots will fall.”
Michigan State jumped out to an early lead as Michigan’s offense seemed to falter at the beginning, scoring just six points before the under-16 timeout. The defense also had trouble containing Spartan point guard and potential National Player of the Year Cassius Winston and forward Xavier Tillman, allowing Michigan State to jump out to a five-point lead around the 15-minute mark.
But by halfway through the first half, the Wolverines managed to make it a two-point game behind a strong effort from senior point guard Zavier Simpson and senior center Austin Davis. A quicker pace of play, something that rookie Michigan coach Juwan Howard has continued to stress throughout his first season at the helm for Michigan, seemed to be the key for the Wolverines, who started to match the speed of in the Spartans in transition.
Michigan’s success was short-lived, though. From there, the Wolverines’ shots just weren’t falling; they scored just five points between the ten- and six-minute marks. The loss of top-scoring junior forward Isaiah Livers was painfully evident. At the end of the first half, Michigan State led, 44-34.
“It was a big win for us, because the final score was not indicative of the game,” said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo. “We got that eleven, twelve-point lead, but we just couldn’t build on it. It’s a credit to them.”
From there, the game was never really in question. The Wolverines came out of the halftime break playing as physical as they have all year, seemingly in an effort not to go too quietly, but even then, it was too little, too late. The Spartans had found their rhythm, and Michigan could not find a way to shake it. Tillman and Winston were practically unstoppable, and in the entire second half, the Wolverines found themselves within closer than ten points of the Spartans just twice.
Every Michigan effort seemed to come up short as Michigan State expanded and expanded its lead to the delighted cries of the rabid crowd at Breslin. Every time a maize jersey broke away, he was surrounded by white in a matter of seconds as Spartan shot after Spartan shot found nothing but net – and not a Wolverine in sight to stop them.
“Unfortunately for us, we didn’t do a good job communicating on the open man, and where he was, so that’s why they were able to score so much in transition,” Howard said. “There’s no excuses for that. We prepared for it. We just didn’t do it. And at the end of the day, you have to do your job.”
In the end, it wasn’t that close. Michigan State’s talent and experience proved too much for this Michigan team.
Just as advertised.