Chris Solari Detroit Free Press
Published 8:59 PM EDT Mar 21, 2019
DES MOINES, Iowa — One after another, Bradley started hitting 3-pointers, each one bringing in another opposing fan base salivating to witness a monumental NCAA tournament upset.
A déjà vu moment? Middle Tennessee State, anyone?
Not at all. Not for this Michigan State team.
“Nope. Just thinking about today,” said senior Kenny Goins, who was part of that 2016 team when the second-seeded Spartans got bounced by a hot-shooting 15-seed. “It’s just what we’ve done all year. It’s just a mentality, going through it enough to know it’s not about yesterday or five years ago, it’s not about tomorrow or the next game. It’s worry about today.”
That immediate focus through inescapable fatigue provided MSU with a tomorrow.
Cassius Winston hit a pair of free throws, then shimmied his way into the lane and swished a floater. Matt McQuaid drilled a 3-pointer on a set play called by assistant coach Dane Fife, and that decision set up Aaron Henry for a hook shot in the paint on the next trip as defenders focused on the outside.
A 9-0 run in a little under a 4-minute stretch. Another late second-half comeback. And a gigantic exhale.
The Spartans pulled away to a 76-65 victory over the Braves to avoid the upset and advance to Saturday’s second round.
“In the game, you need three possessions, especially down the stretch,” said Winston, who scored a game-high 24 points. “You make three possessions in the last 10 minutes of the game, that can really open up the game. So we pride ourselves on getting three stops and three plays like that. Once it finally happened, we broke it open. …
“If it was easy, everybody would be doing it. You just gotta keep fighting, keep playing. At the end of the day, winning is all that matters.”
The Spartans (29-6) advance to Saturday’s second round and will face a familiar foe in 10-seed Minnesota, which upset No. 7-seed Louisville 86-76 in the early game at Wells Fargo Arena.
MSU beat the Gophers (22-13) in their only meeting, 79-55, on Feb. 9 in East Lansing. It will be the first time the two Big Ten foes have ever met in an NCAA tournament.
The Spartans moved on because of that clutch run and a 22-10 push over the final 6:24. They also summoned perhaps their best free-throw shooting of the season, making 25 of 26 for the game and 11 of 12 in the final 2:04. And MSU held Bradley scoreless for a 4:39 stretch late in the half.
“If we can keep starting slow and finishing strong and fast,” MSU coach Tom Izzo said, “I’ll take that every day of the week compared to starting fast and finishing slow.”
It was clear MSU players felt the quick turnaround from their three-wins-in-three-days Big Ten tournament championship, including the title game over Michigan on Sunday.
Shots were falling short. Switches on defense were not crisp. The Spartans looked like a tired team at the outset.
“I’ll look at it later and say it was a hell of an effort by a team that really had zero rest because of that turnaround,” Izzo said. “And if someone doesn’t like that as an excuse, too bad. … I am proud of my team coming off what we did, emotionally and physically. Bouncing back like we did, getting challenged like we did, and answering the bell at the end. There’s a lot of positives to that.
“I might find them when I watch the film, but I didn’t find them when I watched the game.”
Izzo was concerned about his team struggling with the anticipated tendencies of Bradley (20-15), which had a week off after a surprising run to the Missouri Valley Conference tournament title. The Braves took advantage of MSU’s struggles early, jumping out to a quick 10-4 lead and making 6 of 9 3-pointers to carry a 35-34 lead into halftime.
“Maybe mentally, we showed a little crack for the first time in a while,” Izzo said. “We weren’t quite on top of scouting reports. … Maybe it was the short turnaround time. Maybe it was poor coaching. But we all gotta do a better job, and that’s what I’m gonna vow to do.”
However, it has been a trend since the loss to Kansas in the season-opener that the Spartans surge in the second half.
MSU has outscored opponents on average 40.9-33 in second halves this season. Opponents are shooting just 38.1 percent overall and 30.4 percent from 3-point range after halftime.
The Spartans trailed by 13 early in the second half and rallied to beat Michigan on Sunday for the Big Ten tournament title, similar to recovering from a 12-point hole late in the first half against the Wolverines to pull away to a share of the league title in the regular-season finale.
So why not do it again to squelch an upset?
“Second half, we pride ourselves in dominating games and do what we do best,” Winston said. “That’s rebounding and getting stops. We knew if we did those things, we were gonna come out on top.”
The Spartans’ defense held Bradley to 11 of 28 from the field and just 3 of 12 from 3-point range in the final 20 minutes. After they made 2 of 3 shots to open the second half and build their largest lead at five points, the Braves went 8 of 26 the rest of the way. MSU also had a 23-7 edge on the glass in the final 20 minutes.
Bradley would not join Middle Tennessee State in NCAA lore. And the Spartans’ escape in this game gives them a chance to get out of the first weekend of the tournament for the first time since 2015 if they can beat the Gophers a second time.
“We’ve been doing it all season,” said Goins, who made just 1 of 10 shots, “just finding a way to win. … We knew what to expect, and I think that’s why we ended up coming out on top, because we never really got that rattled.”
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