Big Ten Basketball cares not for your blood pressure.
Conference play is back and wasted no time in giving fans a gem. Despite the officiating crew’s best efforts — there were 51 personal fouls called — this was a riveting game and could not have been a bigger win for the Spartans.
1. A Tale of Three Halves
If you missed the first half of this game, I envy you. If you missed the second half, I feel bad for you. If you missed overtime, I can’t help you.
Quick recap: In the first half, Michigan State looked completely lost on the offensive end of the floor and finished with a season-low 26 points. Nick Ward was the only player who looked remotely comfortable. MSU trailed by 13 at the half.
In the second half, things got really ugly and then really fun. MSU was down as many as 14 but rode fastbreak lay-ups by Tum Tum Nairn and big 3’s from Alvin Ellis to get back into the game around the 10 minute mark.
Down the stretch, though, it was the Big Puddin’ show. Nick Ward put on a clinic against the Minnesota bigs, finishing with both hands and flashing some advanced post moves. He finished the game with 22 points, 10 rebounds and 4 blocks. The freshman did shoot a troubling 4/13 from the free throw line but has announced himself as a bonafide stud.
OT was, in a word, awesome. Michigan State had the largest lead of the extra frame after Tum Tum put his team up three with a triple at the 2:33 mark, but Minnesota scored four straight to take a 72-71 lead on a Bakary Konate dunk with 1:27 remaining. The teams traded leads again and thenMSU got the ball back with 0:34 on the clock, down 74-73. Then it officially became...
2. The Alvin Ellis Game
The Alvin Ellis Game— KJ (@KJfromtheDeck) December 28, 2016
It seems like we get one every year and the 2016-17 edition came none too soon.
Ellis, a one time Minnesota commit, played his best game as a Spartan, scoring a career-high 20 points (7-of-13 shooting, 3-of-4 from 3PT). More often than not playing out of position as a pseudo-stretch four, he held his own on the glass despite guarding larger players, finishing with 6 rebounds and 2 blocks. Yes, Minnesota’s Jordan Murphy, whom Ellis checked a good deal, had 21 rebounds but only 3 of those came on the offensive glass. That’s OK.
Fittingly, Ellis found himself at the line with 10 seconds left in overtime with his team trailing by a point. The senior did what seniors are supposed to do, calmly sinking both shots which provided MSU all they needed to escape with a one-point W.
Many envisioned Eron Harris taking on the “assertive/efficient scoring wing” role but Ellis — who has gotten at least 20 minutes in 3 of the last 4 games — is going to get keep getting chances after a performance like tonight’s.
3. A Major Momentum Builder
This could have been the backbreaker. This could have been the game that got every pundit asking “Is MSU going to miss the tournament?” In football terms, it could have been BYU aka the game when things became “officially” not good.
Instead, it’s an enormously important win. Not only because it is a Big Ten road win and puts MSU in favorable position to start conference play 4-0, but because of the way they did it.
It would have been so easy for a team to give up in those circumstances — down 14 on the road, against a 12-1 team and unable to score with any ease — but the upperclassmen wouldn’t quit.
Say what you will about Tum Tum Nairn, but the effect of his leadership is real. He has given up most of his playing time to Cassius Winston, but when the freshman wasn’t able to get going, he stepped in and led his team back into the game. He’s not known as a scorer but had 13 points, including two massively clutch three’s. That’s the type of leadership you expect from your upperclassmen and it may have kept MSU’s season from taking a sharp turn south.
For perhaps the first time all season Michigan State has real momentum. They can thank Nairn, Ellis and Ward for turning what looked to be disaster into a possibly season-altering win.
BONUS POINT: Where’s Eron?
After seeing this video the answer is, somehow, “luckily alive”.
On a team that doesn’t have two bigs to play at the same time, guards are going to have to carry the offensive load. Tonight, Ellis and Nairn did that — a statement that, after typing it, made me question everything I’ve ever known to be true — but Harris was a complete non-factor, especially in the disastrous first half.
Eron Harris played 2 first-half minutes, went 0 for 3 with 2 turnovers and two PFs.— Brendan F. Quinn (@BFQuinn) December 28, 2016
He’s had his big moments, including almost singlehandedly keeping MSU from losing to Florida Gulf Coast, and had a bucket with about a minute left in OT, but when he has games like tonight — 5 points on 2-of-9 shooting, 4 fouls — it’s going to catch up to MSU more often than not.
The Spartans survived but will need Harris to have big performances against big opponents if they want to play to their full potential.