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A crucial road win over Minnesota keeps Michigan State Spartans atop the Big Ten standings

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NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Minnesota David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

On a day that absolutely shocked the basketball world with the tragic passing of NBA legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and reportedly seven others, the Michigan State Spartans took the court on Sunday.

Coming off of a second consecutive road loss to the Indiana Hoosiers, the Spartans traveled to Minneapolis to take on the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Head coach Tom Izzo switched up the starting lineup, inserting freshmen Malik Hall and Mark “Rocket” Watts in place of Marcus Bingham and Aaron Henry, respectively. Izzo’s team responded with a resounding 18-point victory away from the Breslin Center, and a regular season sweep of Minnesota.

Both teams got off to slow starts, but Michigan State began to open things up, taking an eight-point lead into the half. MSU then outscored Minnesota 40-30 in the second half, winning by a final score of 70-52. Minnesota shot a putrid 28.1 percent from the floor, while MSU finished with a much better clip at 47.3 percent.

As usual, Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman led the way offensively for the Spartans. Winston scored 18 points and dished out eight assists, while grabbing four rebounds. Tillman had a double-double with 17 points and 10 rebounds, along with five assists and two blocks.

Other Spartans were key contributors, as Watts scored 10 points and played tough defensively, while Gabe Brown had seven points with six rebounds. Henry adjusted to his bench role nicely with nine points, four boards, two assists and a ridiculous four steals. Hall, in his first career start, scored seven points with six rebounds and one assist. Thomas Kithier only scored two points, but it was an impressive shot in the post over Daniel Oturu (who had 19 points and six boards himself), while adding two assists and a rebound.

The Spartans improved to 7-2 in conference play and 15-5 overall. The win keeps Michigan State atop the Big Ten, as MSU is currently tied with Illinois for first-place in the conference standings. MSU already has one head-to-head win against Illinois, and plays the Fighting Illini again on Feb. 11, on the road in Champaign.

The victory over the Gophers also pushes Michigan State’s road record to 3-2 overall, and 2-2 in the conference. Road wins have been hard to come by all Big Ten teams so far in the 2019-2020 season, so placing this one in the win column should prove to be crucial for the Spartans moving forward.

The Spartans players were unaware of the Kobe Bryant news while playing. Izzo, who found out moments before tip-off, had the tough task of telling them afterward. You can see Winston’s stunned reaction below:

You can watch Izzo speaking about Kobe Bryant in this short clip below:

Izzo spoke more on the tragedy and the impact that Bryant had in his post-game press conference:

“It speaks so much about a man when you don’t know him. Like I said, I did this much (a little bit), but none of the players did. And yet the idolization, the respect, it was like, oh my God,” Izzo said. “That win, sad for me because we need to feel good, but that win meant nothing three minutes into it. I was amazed just watching different players that I didn’t think would really look at things that way. It kind of tells you how fragile life is. For his daughter, oh, man, it’s sad.

“So I found out right before, but I didn’t tell them until after. And they didn’t know. Thank God they don’t have those electronic belt buckles on their uniforms that they could text and figure out what’s going on.”

Our thoughts and prayers are with the Bryant family, the Altobelli family and all of the other families affected by the helicopter crash on Sunday morning.