“You know what? We won our first game,” coach Tom Izzo deadpanned Saturday night. “We’re 1-0 in 2021. That’s how I’m gonna have to look at it.”
It was easy to see reasons for Izzo’s optimism and causes for his immediate frustrations in the 18th-ranked Spartans’ an 84-77 road escape against Nebraska at Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Aaron Henry delivered “the best game of his life here” at MSU, Izzo said, with a career-high 27 points. His strong shooting performance pushed the Spartans to a 17-point lead early in the second half. But the junior captain also went scoreless over the final 9 minutes, 29 seconds as the Cornhuskers pulled within five.
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A.J. Hoggard helped get the ball moving again for MSU’s offense in his first start at point guard, showing the ability and willingness to drive to the basket and create along with it. But the freshman, along with junior Foster Loyer, showed the Spartans have plenty of work defensively to become the team Izzo envisions.
Henry paced a blistering 51.8% shooting night for MSU, its best since a season-opening win over Eastern Michigan on Nov. 25, but allowed Nebraska to make 49.1% of its shots. The Spartans continued to struggle containing guards — Teddy Allen had 19 of his 23 points in the second half and Trey McGowens scored 15 of his 20 in the opening period. All four Big Ten opponents, as well as Oakland before conference play began, shot 47.6% or better against MSU.
The Spartans drove the ball aggressively and got to the free-throw line early and often, making 19 of a season-high 26 attempts for the game, but they missed 4 of 9 in the final 2:39 while trying to hold off Nebraska. MSU took only three in the second half before the Huskers went into foul mode to extend the game.
And the Spartans lost the rebounding battle for the second straight game, 31-29, and got outscored in the paint for the third time in four Big Ten games. Yet they still managed to turn nine offensive boards into 14 points, including a few putbacks at critical junctures to preserve the victory.
“So we got our first win,” Izzo said. “We're gonna have to get a lot better.”
Still, MSU (7-3, 1-3 Big Ten) avoided opening Big Ten play with four straight losses for the first time under Izzo and prevented their first four-game losing streak since 2001-02. But another ranked opponent awaits 9 p.m. Tuesday, when the Spartans host No. 13 Rutgers.
“We put together Michigan State basketball for more than we have been in the past games,” said Joshua Langford, who scored 15 points. “I think this is a great step moving forward in our season and just in our team.”
While Henry’s assertiveness may have been the biggest positive, Izzo’s biggest move might have been starting Hoggard at point guard and letting him play a season-high 23 minutes.
The 6-foot-3 freshman committed just one turnover and finished 2 of 3 for four points. More importantly, he got MSU’s offense moving the ball again around the perimeter while adding five assists, three rebounds and two blocks.
“He did a good job distributing the ball, getting guys open, making plays, getting to the rim, becoming available,” Henry said of Hoggard. “He's very intelligent, he has a good feel for the game. The sky's the limit for him, and he's only going to grow as a player. … He stepped up big-time tonight. And it won't show up on the stat sheet, but he did a lot of good things for us.”
But Hoggard also proved to be a target for Nebraska’s guards to attack off the dribble. He allowed three buckets before the first media timeout to Allen and McGowens, then got backed down by the 6-6 Allen for another layup seconds after the Hoggard checked back in for MSU.
Loyer continued to have issues with bigger guards, too. He played 11 minutes, scoring three points on 1 of 4 shooting with three 3-point misses and a missed free throw. He had two assists and one turnover.
Hoggard’s start pushed Rocket Watts to the bench, and Watts played only 15 minutes. He also had some defensive issues again, getting taken to the basket off the dribble, but scored nine points off the bench but was just 3 of 8.
Izzo said he planned to play Watts more at shooting guard, but the 6-2, 185-pound sophomore found the ball in his hands late in the game as MSU tried to put things away. He showed his need for growth with the Spartans up five points when he took an inbounds pass near his own basket with 24 seconds to play, then dribbled himself into a corner before being saved by a Nebraska foul. Watts made both free throws, and Nebraska did not score again.
All things that still concern Izzo, all things that could hold MSU back from reaching its potential. But all things the Spartans know must become primary points of emphasis now that, as Izzo said, “we won a game to get off the schneid.”
“We did some good things,” Izzo said. “We're still not defending like I think we're capable of. … I want to make sure they understand that was good win, but it's not good enough. When you have a 17-point lead, you gotta learn to step on someone.
“We did play good stretches, so now we're starting to play some good stretches. And we just do more consistently. But it'll come.”
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan State basketball's Tom Izzo pulls the positives from Nebraska