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Spartans Knock Off Rutgers At Home, Set Up Massive Sunday Rivalry Clash

Cassius Winston
Al Martin - WKAR

MSU junior guard Cassius Winston leads the way for MSU over Rutgers on Wednesday night in light of the first game without junior forward Nick Ward due to a broken hand. 

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- It was a performance that checked off all the cliches for Michigan State, even a Spartan team as talented as this one. With tenth-placed Rutgers in town just days ahead of a top-10 matchup with Michigan, it wasn’t hard to imagine a sleepy performance like the one seen at the Breslin Center on Wednesday night.

It took two big second-half performances from Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman to push MSU past a Scarlet Knight team that was up for the challenge, and would have been full value for the upset win had they been able to limit the Spartans in the closing minutes. Instead, MSU will head into Sunday with at least a share of the Big Ten lead after winning 71-60.


Winston reminded everyone why he’s an odds-on favorite for Big Ten Player of the Year, scoring 28 points, 19 of which came in the second half. He added 7 assists in 36 minutes.


“I told him at halftime, this is what you do now,” MSU head coach Tom Izzo said. “We gotta go on [his] back here a little bit. When we started to get guys to get to the boards...we executed some really good things. We had to change as we were going just because of the personnel in there. Cassius was sensational at times tonight.”


Izzo will be happy with how well MSU defended on the night, as the Spartans took a team that had ranked in the top five in the conference in rebounding and beat them on the glass 45-31.


“To be able to come back on a team who’s so physical and tough is big for us,” Tillman said. “To be able to out-rebound them really shows our toughness and our grit.”


With Nick Ward out of the lineup, Tillman got his second start of the season after featuring at Illinois at the start of the month. He added a career-high 19 points and 10 rebounds on 7-of-12 shooting. Matt McQuaid was the other Spartan in double figures, hitting three 3-pointers to end up with 11 points.


Before Winston’s excellent second half, MSU trailed at halftime for the third straight game, heading into the half down 32-25. Rutgers wasn’t really doing anything to overwhelm the Spartans - instead, MSU were masters of their own demise, as they failed to convert multiple open shots inside.


After a slow start to the second half, Tillman began to take control. He ducked around a screen to catch a Winston pass for an easy layup - that cut the lead to seven. Off an inbounds play, a slipped screen and a dunk. After a timeout, a drive and finish at the basket through contact to earn a foul that kept MSU in striking distance.


From there, Winston dazzled for the umpteenth time this season. A layup cut the Scarlet Knight lead to three before he turned guard Geo Baker inside-out, creating enough space for a McQuaid 3-pointer that evened the score at 40.


“We did a good job of putting pressure on them,” Winston said. “Our transition kind of hurt them, wore them down a little bit. From there, we just kept applying pressure.”


Rutgers really had no answer for Winston in the second half, as he was able to get into the lane and finish almost at will. He went on his own 7-0 run midway through the second half to give MSU the lead, and by the time the second half was over it was easy to run out of superlatives about his inspired play.


The first half by contrast was as sloppy as it had been on Sunday against Ohio State. MSU made just nine first-half shots on its way to 25 points, among its lowest outputs all season.


“The first half, we were trying to go in there, but their length was so big,” Izzo said. “I don’t think we did a great job. That was an interesting time for Xavier.”


MSU’s cold shooting early quickly became contagious, including a comical possession midway through the first half where Kenny Goins missed a pair of easy layups. To their credit, Rutgers made shots when the opportunities arose early on. A 3-pointer from backup guard Peter Kiss highlighted a 12-0 Scarlet Knights run that turned a 6-point MSU lead into a 21-15 Rutgers lead with 7 minutes left in the half.


For as much as Rutgers tried to play inside, eventually Winston’s artistry was too much. Baker led RU with 17 points, but forward Eugene Omoruyi managed just 9 points on 4-of-13 shooting. Rutgers will head back to New Jersey and play Minnesota at home on Sunday.


Michigan State will look for sole possession of first place in the conference on Sunday as they face Michigan for the first time. Tipoff from the Crisler Center is scheduled for 3:45 p.m.


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