LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Entering Tuesday’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge, No. 9 Michigan State (5-2) was turning the ball over 14.2 times per outing. The turnover woes, like last season, is already a recurring issue in this young season, as MSU coughed it up 17 more times in its 82-78 overtime loss to Louisville (4-2).
“I’m disappointed in how we played,” head coach Tom Izzo said, visibly irked in his postgame presser. “I thought we did another horrendous job at the beginning of the game. We had 11 or 12 turnovers in the first half.”
Following an impressive Las Vegas Invitational win, the Spartans took the floor at the KFC Yum! Center in their first true road game of the year. And boy, did the hostile crowd have an impact, especially early on. The Cardinals built a lead as big as 12 in the first half, thanks in large part to Ryan McMahon pouring in three 3-pointers en route to a career-high 24 points.
“Nobody guarded him,” Izzo said jokingly of McMahon’s big night. “We told them that his range is unlimited. So give him credit, he made them.”
Matt McQuaid didn't make the trip after suffering a deep thigh bruise against Texas last week, which meant more impactful minutes from the true freshman Foster Loyer. When Cassius Winston fouled out with 4:01 remaining in regulation, Loyer’s defensive deficiencies were picked on as McMahon plotted and probed, attacking the rim at will and finishing the night 12-for-13 from the charity stripe.
“Every time we relaxed, he [McMahon] hurt us,” Winston said of the junior guard, who came off the bench for the fifth time in six games. “If our hands were down, he was shooting it and knocking it down. He got fouled a lot. He had a really good game today.”
Despite all what went wrong for Michigan State, it had tons of opportunities to walk out of a raucous arena with a win. With MSU up one with 36 seconds left in regulation, Loyer missed the front-end of a one-and-one opportunity. Loyer was as good of a free throw shooter as anyone in the state of Michigan, setting a state record of 119 consecutive free throws made.
“When I walk up to the free throw line, I always think it’s going in,” Loyer said, confident and upbeat after the game. “I thought that was going in ... it felt great. I’m gonna go make the next however many, so I’m not gonna let that hold me down.”
Michigan State finished the night 14-of-23 from the free throw line, but like Loyer’s, had a couple big misses in key moments down the stretch.
The Spartans weathered the big first half deficit and actually led for the majority of the last four minutes of regulation, but they just couldn’t execute on enough plays down the stretch.
“We just did some things that aren’t good enough to win,” Izzo said. “It’s a game of inches, and we didn’t value the inches.”
Joshua Langford didn’t have the best night offensively, finishing with 15 points on a rough 5-of-14 night. But with Winston gone for the rest of regulation, Langford stepped up in a big way, hitting a string of tough jumpers and then pumping his fist at midcourt to spark his team defensively.
“We understood it was going to be a hostile environment,” the junior captain said after the game. “I was just trying to get my teammates to understand we can win this game.”
Langford had a crucial turnover late as he unnecessarily tried advancing the ball into the frontcourt, ending any shot he had to ice the game with free throws.
“I’ve gotta take the blame for that,” Izzo said of the late blunder. “I must’ve not done a good enough job of telling him in the timeout that we’ve got another timeout. I think he wished he would’ve had that back, but at the same time, I gotta do a better job myself.”
The frontcourt for MSU played well enough, with Xavier Tillman and Nick Ward combining for 25 points. He didn’t get one shot off, but senior Kenny Goins was dominant on the glass, pulling down a career-high 17 rebounds, with 14 of those coming on the offensive end.
“That’s arguably a top five offensive rebounding team every year,” first-year head coach Chris Mack said about the Spartans’ plus-17 rebounding advantage. “The players and jerseys change, but the way they rebound doesn’t.”
After missing all of last year, Kyle Ahrens put in his best work of the season with 15 points, including a trio of clutch 3-pointers. Ahrens showed impressive driving ability and stepped up big time defensively in McQuaid's absence.
“It feels way better to be out there than being on the bench hurt,” Ahrens said after the game. “I was just trying to seize each and every moment I have, especially going through what I went through last year.”
Even in the loss, MSU found out what its team is all about, especially down one of its glue-guys who does a lot more than people realize. It found out how versatile and reliable Goins is going to be each and every game. Ahrens showed great value and productivity which he can provide off the bench. It found out that even with average nights from its top-three scorers, it can still find ways to win.
For the foreseeable future, the Spartans’ road doesn’t get easier. MSU will travel to Piscataway on Friday to take on Rutgers in its Big Ten season-opener and then a very good Iowa team three days later, before jumping back out of conference play for a road game with Florida.