In the frantic final seconds of Michigan State’s 63-61 win over Iowa, Payton Sandford put up two three point shots. The first was by design out of a timeout - he found himself open, took the crosscourt pass from Connor McCaffery, and fired his fourth three point attempt of the night. The ball hung in the air for what felt like an eternity until it clanged off of iron. Sandford’s chaotic next shot off the rebound had no chance and a full Breslin Center exhaled in a celebratory glee that can only come from a tough Big Ten win in January.
For much of the game, it really had the makings of being “the Malik Hall game” with a singular performance that transcends everything else on the floor, and Tom Izzo said after the game that “If I had to pick a number one star, it was Malik.”
Hall returned, earlier than expected, from the foot injury suffered in Champaign. The Breslin crowd ate it up. Every time he touched the ball, the crowd erupted, especially after the go-ahead tomahawk dunk he buried in the middle of the first half. Even though MSU had managed reasonably well against Rutgers and Purdue without Hall, his presence helped unlock a versatility that MSU desperately needed against the Hawkeyes. Fran McCaffery acknowledged as much in his postgame press conference, saying “they’re way better with (Hall)” and Fran is right.
Even though Hall’s spark was undeniable, MSU spread things around really well. Five Spartans finished with double digit points, led by Jaden Akins’ 12. Mady Sissoko, finally not faced with the challenge of playing a premier singular big man, regained some of his form, finishing with a double double, with 10 points and 10 rebounds, including some timely dunks down the stretch.
After an ice cold start, where the Spartans started 0-10 from the field, falling down 10-0 on the scoreboard before a Tyson Walker three sparked a resurgence that brought MSU within two by the next media timeout.
The sense of momentum inside the Breslin Center went back and forth time and time again, as each team traded control of the ballgame, both on the scoreboard and in that intangible sense on the court. With every punch landed, there would be a counterpunch, often from Ahron Ulis, who finished with a career high 17 points. As the end approached, both teams struggled to make open shots, with MSU looking particularly unlucky, as Iowa left too many Spartans open in the final minutes, but MSU was able to capitalize just enough to come out on top.
MSU will have to play better if they want to have a chance at Mackey Arena on Sunday when they take on Purdue again, but it’s better that they do so after an ugly win than after a pretty loss.