With Rutgers leading by 7 points at the half, they came out of the break and Montez Mathis scored two baskets driving to the rim in the first minute of the second half. The lead was 11 points and no. 10/11 Michigan State, who entered the game in a three-way tie for first place in the Big Ten, was in serious trouble. Playing its first game without its best frontcourt player in Nick Ward, who was out with a hairline fracture in his left hand, the Spartans were still trying to figure out how to play without him. With legendary head coach Tom Izzo on the bench and Big Ten Player of the Year front runner Cassius Winston on the court, they eventually did.
Michigan State started utilizing ball screens within its halfcourt offense, Winston wrecked havoc with 19 points and 6 assists in the second half, and the Spartans defense was stifling, completely shutting down the Rutgers offense. Michigan State reeled off a game changing 19-4 run to take a 4 point lead with 11:20 left in the game. When Ron Harper Jr. stepped into a shot from 25 feet from the rim and buried a three-pointer to cut the lead to 1, it seemed like Rutgers was about to respond with a run of its own.
Unfortunately, Michigan State was clicking like a fine tuned machine. In trying to upset any good team, when you have them on the ropes, you have to deliver the knock out blow or suffer the consequences. After watching Rutgers exhibit great toughness and exert their will on the Spartans in the first half, they ended up getting run over, as MSU reeled off a game closing 18-3 run to lead 62-46 with 3:36 remaining. The final score was 71-60, as Michigan State showed why they are a top ten team and Big Ten title contender, while Rutgers showed its still learning.
It’s fair to be disappointed in how this game unraveled for Rutgers, but I also think there are positives to take away from it as well. After suffering as devastating a defeat you can experience against Iowa on Saturday night in front of a sellout on its homecourt, Rutgers responded in a positive way in this game. They came out and gave Michigan State all they could handle in the first half, outplaying the first place Spartans on their homecourt. In building a program, its these types of small steps that are important to make. They obviously couldn’t sustain it, but it’s an experience, the good and the bad, that will make this team stronger in the long run.
It’s obviously disheartening to see how Rutgers got bodied on the boards and completely shut down offensively in the second half. The optimistic view is that Rutgers brought the best out of Michigan State by outplaying them in the opening frame and incurred their wrath in the second. After winning the rebounding battle in eight straight conference games and establishing a +56 rebounding margin over that span, Rutgers was a step slow in the second half, producing a -10 rebounding margin. It was -14 for the game, as Michigan State took away the most consistent part of Rutgers’ game over the last month or so. That’s what good teams do.
It was a tale of two halves for Geo Baker. He scored 13 points on 5 of 8 shooting and 3 of 5 from three-point range in the opening frame, but had just 4 points on 1 of 4 shooting and 0 of 3 from behind the arc in the second half. Rutgers was 7-0 this season when Baker scored 16 or more points in a game, but they lost tonight after he was slowed down by Michigan State in the second half. He did finish with 6 assists to just 2 turnovers, as well as 3 steals, but it wasn’t enough.
The only other Rutgers player to score in double digits was Ron Harper Jr., who finished with 11 points on 4 of 6 shooting, as well as 4 rebounds. I’ll have more on Harper Jr. soon, but he has been the most efficient Rutgers player in Big Ten play this season and needs to get more touches on offense.
Eugene Omoruyi struggled to finish inside, as Michigan State made a point to suffocate him in the paint, especially in the second half. He finished with 9 point on 4 of 13 shooting and added 8 rebounds and 5 assists. Peter Kiss provided some scoring punch off the bench, finishing with 9 points as well on 4 of 8 shooting. Myles Johnson produced a line of 5 points, 7 rebounds, 2 blocks and 2 steals. Mathis only scored 4 points, the aforementioned two baskets to start the second half.
In a game that both teams shot 40% overall, it never felt even in that area. Michigan State had a knack for making some big shots in the second half, including a couple of circus shots from Winston, while the rim had a lid over it for Rutgers. The reality was the Scarlet Knights shot 40% in both halves, while the Spartans followed a 30% first half with 52% in the second frame.
While Rutgers had a +3 turnover margin, they struggled once again from the free throw line, making just 9 of 17 for 53%. Michigan State shot 91%, making 20 of 22 attempts.
Rutgers (12-14; 5-11) will return home to face Minnesota (17-9; 7-8) on Sunday night at 6:30 at the RAC. It’s a huge opportunity for Steve Pikiell’s team. The reality is this, if Rutgers can hold serve at home by beating the Gophers and Penn State on senior night, they’ll be playing with house money heading into the regular season finale at Indiana. Wednesday night’s game was a roller coaster of emotions in watching this team, but with the season officially in the stretch run, I don’t want the ride to end. Even if this loss was a frustrating one.
For Dave White’s four thoughts click here.