DETROIT, Mich. — The game may have been played in Detroit on a neutral floor, but the atmosphere inside Little Caesars Arena was anything but neutral on Friday night.
Fans of the Michigan State Spartans came out in full force to support their beloved Green and White in their First Round game against the Bucknell Bison. Cheers of “Go Green…Go White” echoed throughout the arena all game long, and it gave the Spartans that extra boost of motivation they needed, especially in the second frame.
Coming into the contest, the Spartans stressed the importance of not overlooking an opponent in the NCAA Tournament. Two years ago, they were eliminated in the First Round by the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders, who were a 15-seed.
Michigan State wanted to avoid another early exit from the NCAA Tournament, and while they had to sweat things down the stretch, they made sure to avoid a repeat from the 2016 NCAA Tournament.
Bucknell made things interesting in the closing seconds with some key shots from long range, but Michigan State sealed the deal on an 82-78 win over the Bison thanks in large part to free throws.
Michigan State led 44-40 at halftime after a closer-than-expected first half for many. Bucknell was led by Zach Thomas, who scored 20 points on 6-of-11 shooting in the frame. He was also a perfect 3-of-3 from beyond the arc and 5-of-6 from the free throw line.
In the second half, the Spartans decided to take control of the game, thanks in large part to their defensive pressure. Michigan State held Bucknell without a field goal for over 11 minutes at one point in the second frame, and the Spartans opened up a 14-point lead with just over eight minutes to play.
Just when it looked like things were all but over, Bucknell continued to fight and made the score close down the stretch.
Thomas fouled out in the second half after receiving a technical foul, but that didn’t stop the Bison from mounting a furious comeback in the closing minutes to make the Spartans sweat down to the final buzzer.
Nate Sestina kicked off the late three point barrage from the Bison with 1:18 to play in the game, bringing Bucknell to within 11. Canadian Kimbal Mackenzie connected on his own triple shortly thereafter, and then it was Stephen Brown‘s turn to hit big shots and end his career with a bang.
Over the final 30 seconds, Brown hit a trio of three pointers to get Bucknell within four points, but no closer. Michigan State was able to thwart the late upset bid from the Bison with some timely free throw shooting. In the final minute, Joshua Langford was 5-of-6 from the line, while Cassius Winston hit both of his attempts to seal the deal for the Spartans.
Michigan State led by as many as 18 points in the second half, but had to work for their 82-78 win over Bucknell in the First Round of the 2018 NCAA Tournament.
For the third-seed Spartans, sophomore guard Miles Bridges kicked off his 2018 NCAA Tournament with an impressive showing on the offensive end. He finished with a game-high 29 points and nine rebounds, while going 12-of-22 from the floor. Bridges had a pair of highlight reel dunks on the night, which included a second chance, one-handed putback slam over Nana Foulland.
Joshua Langford added 22 points of his own, while going 7-of-10 from the floor. Cassius Winston recorded a double-double of 11 points and 10 assists.
For the Bison, they were led by a pair of seniors in their final collegiate games. Zach Thomas scored 27 points before fouling out with just over two minutes left in the game. Stephen Brown finished with 20 points of his own, with nine coming in the final 30 seconds during his three point barrage.
Michigan State will now face the winner of Friday night’s final game of the First Round in Detroit between the TCU Horned Frogs and the Syracuse Orange.
– T. Bennett