EAST LANSING, Mich. — On Thursday night inside the Breslin Center, the third-ranked Michigan State Spartans led wire-to-wire against the fifth-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish, picking up a big 81-63 win to close out the 2017 ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
It marks the second win for Michigan State over a top ten team in a five-day span, as they knocked off the then ninth-ranked North Carolina Tar Heels on Sunday to win the Victory Bracket of the PK80 Invitational, 63-45.
Michigan State got contributions from all 11 players who checked into the game, nine of which recorded at least two points in the win. Sophomore guard Cassius Winston led the way with another all-round performance, recording 17 points, seven assists, and five rebounds.
Fellow guard Joshua Langford tied Winston for the team-high in scoring with 17 points of his own, while Miles Bridges chipped in with 14 points and six rebounds.
Senior forward Bonzie Colson led the way for the Fighting Irish, who had four players score in double-figures in the loss. Colson finished with 17 points, six rebounds, five steals and four blocks.
After slow starts in their first two games at the PK80 Invitational, the Spartans have come out of the gate quick in their last two outings, including Thursday night. Winston opened the game with a three pointer on the first possession of the game, and Nick Ward followed that up with a tip-in on Michigan State’s second possession.
Bridges threw down an alley-oop dunk on a feed from Winston just over two minutes into the game, capping a 9-2 run out of the gate for the home side.
Early on, it seemed as though the Spartans couldn’t miss on the offensive end of the floor. A pair of free throws from Langford at the midway point of the half pushed the lead for Michigan State to 20 points, at 33-11. Notre Dame looked overwhelmed in the first frame, and couldn’t hit shots from long distance to launch any sort of comeback before the break.
After the first frame, it appeared that the Spartans were going to pull away and turn it into a blowout. Michigan State held a 46-26 lead after the first 20 minutes, much to the delight of their home fans.
In the second half, however, it was Notre Dame’s turn to come out of the gate strong.
Whatever head coach Mike Brey said in the locker room at half time must’ve registered with his players, as the Fighting Irish opened the second frame on a 14-2 run to trim the Spartans’ lead down to single digits. Rex Pflueger hit a three pointer to open the second half, kicking off the run that would span over four minutes.
Momentum was squarely behind the Fighting Irish, as they looked to close the gap even further as the half wore on. After Langford hit a three pointer of his own to push the Spartans’ lead back to double-digits, Austin Torres got a layup to fall and Matt Farrell hit a jumper of his own to get Notre Dame to within seven points, at 53-46.
That was as close as Notre Dame would get the rest of the way.
Whenever Notre Dame tried to cut into the lead further, the Spartans had an answer on the offensive end. Whether it was freshman Jaren Jackson, Jr. connecting on a three pointer, or timely offensive rebounds that led to second-chance opportunities, Michigan State seemingly had a response for whatever the Fighting Irish threw at them.
Early on in the second half, the Spartans bent, but ultimately didn’t break. They never trailed on Thursday night, and the score was never tied with the exception of 0-0 for the first few seconds of the contest. Down the stretch, the Spartans got timely stops on defense, and the likes of Winston, Langford, and Bridges hit some big shots to help Michigan State pull away for the 81-63 victory.
For the second game in a row, Joshua Langford has looked like a strong offensive option for the Spartans. After posting 23 points against North Carolina on Sunday, on 8-of-11 shooting, Langford was 7-of-13 from the floor against Notre Dame for 17 points.
If he can keep up his strong offensive play, he becomes yet another weapon for Tom Izzo, in what is already a loaded rotation.
Michigan State doubled up Notre Dame in terms of rebounding, holding a 42-21 edge when the final buzzer sounded. Both teams shot above 40% from three point range, and the Spartans shot 51.7% from the floor overall, while Notre Dame shot 44.4% from the field.
With the win, Michigan State (6-1) seems to be rounding into form quite nicely, and have asserted themselves as a legitimate national championship contender in the process. The Spartans open Big Ten play on Sunday with a home contest against the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
The loss was the first of the season for Notre Dame (6-1), thus ending their six-game winning streak. The Fighting Irish will look to start a new winning streak when return home to face the St. Francis (BKN) Terriers on Sunday afternoon in South Bend.
– T. Bennett