There are days that you know you are going to remember for the rest of your life. Sometimes, you know you will always remember it even before the day happens. Today was one of those days for me. My first time getting a Media Pass for a game, getting to go in a special door to the Breslin, having a room in the underworld of the Breslin Center to leave my personal belongings, going through special hallways to get back to the concourse, and then getting to sit in the media platform for the game. I guess what also made this day memorable was the several inches of snow that took me an hour to shovel off my driveway in order to get on the road and then just getting to my seat about 10 minutes before the game began.
It had been a while since I had been back to attend a basketball game in East Lansing, really maybe since I was still a student (I graduated in 2002). I’ve been back for many football games, but shamefully I have not come to support Izzo & Co. It felt good to be back in this building. So there I was, the MSU Student radio team about three feet to my left and the OSU radio crew about ten feet to my right, getting ready to take in a game. I knew when I was hired by TOC back around Thanksgiving, this was the game I wanted to get to, Senior Day in East Lansing. I knew the emotions would be high and it was going to be a special occasion. Then the season unfolded the way it did, both on and off the court, and this game turned out to be a great one to take in in person. It will certainly be a day that several MSU players will remember for the rest of their lives, but they knew ahead of time that that would be the case.
Game Flow Highlights:
Being Senior Day, Tom Izzo rolled out a starting unit consisting of A.J. Hoggard plus the four seniors - Tyson Walker, Malik Hall, Joey Hauser, and Jason Whitens. This meant no Mady Sissoko to win the jump ball for us. So Ohio State got first possession, drew a shooting foul, and sank two free throws. Not to worry though, because MSU came right back down and earned 2 points in style with a Hoggard-to-Hall alley-oop. After letting OSU score again on their 2nd possession, AJ Hoggard buried a triple from the right corner to put MSU up. Pardon me, but I am going to ruin the suspense of this recap (for nobody, since I know you all watched it); MSU never gave up the lead again. After a drive by Hoggard and a deep basket from Hall, MSU had jumped out to a 10-4 lead, which caused OSU to call a timeout.
The Spartans would continue to pad the lead after the timeout with Joey hitting a jumper and even Tre Holloman splashing one in from the deep end. They could have stretched the lead even more on a play that would have been on Sportscenter’s Top 10. On the defensive end, Mady had a magnificent block on Brice Sensabaugh. Akins collected the loose ball around the far three-point line and started driving down court. He put the ball behind his back to stave off one last defender’s effort at the ball, then rose for a finger role, but unfortunately he didn’t have the right touch on the ball and it went off the back iron and bounced back off the front of the rim. After OSU got the ball after the miss, they went down and earned their first points in about seven minutes, making it a 17-6 game at the 2nd commercial.
So one little thing to share from the Senior Day festivities, at three of the commercial breaks of the first half, the senior members of the cheerleading squad, the band, and the dance team all got recognized by name by the announcer, then each group did a collective kissing of the logo. I thought that was a very classy move by the athletic department. I can imagine that that must be an awesome thing to experience for these students.
Okay back to the game, Ohio State decided to start making some of their shots. They made back-to-back threes after the break, sandwiched around a long two-pointer for Tyson. We saw some of that signature defense from Tyson as he drew an offensive foul on Sensabaugh. AJ hit another corner three, this time from the left, and Joey followed that up with a three of his own to get the lead back to double-digits.
After the under-8, OSU went on a 7-0 run before Malik stopped the bleeding by hitting a triple, and then dropping in another jumper on MSU’s next trip. OSU’s defense then had a pair of down-low steals on consecutive MSU possessions, ripping the ball out of Mady’s hands and then out of Kohler’s as they each were about to launch for a dunk.
OSU would even get another block on Kohler as the first half winded down. Jaden Akins would contribute a three-pointer and then he would draw the foul on a pretty baseline drive to get three the old-fashioned way to help MSU go to the half with a 43-34 lead.
In the 2nd half, Hoggard got his offense going immediately with a drive down the lane for a layup. But Sensabaugh came back and hit consecutive triples to trim the lead to a mere five points. MSU responded with a Walker three, his only one of the night, and then an alley-oop for Mady from AJ. The Spartans and Buckeyes traded a pair of baskets after that, and Mady hit a pair of FTs after getting fouled down low to make the lead 54-46 at the under-16.
Just like at the start of the 2nd half, Hoggard came out of the commercial break with a drive down the lane, this one facilitated by a great screen right around the top of the circle. OSU would knock three points off their deficit on their next time down, and then we had a couple empty possessions for each side, including Joey putting up what can only be described as “the ugliest hook shot in history.” Fortunately, Joey would make up for that with a triple on the next Spartan possession. Tyson would follow that up with an incredible drive to the left side of the basket which concluded with a most fortuitous bounce off the rim to drop. MSU led 61-49 at the under-12.
After the break, we saw Carson Cooper inserted into the game for the first time. Maybe he was no longer warmed up, because he got absolutely crossed up and blown past by Eugene Brown on his way for an open lane dunk. Carson would then turn the ball over, and as you can imagine, he did not stay in the game much longer than that. MSU looked like they were shooting at a lid for a few minutes, allowing the Buckeyes to get back within single digits, but Akins would hit a 3 to end that drama, at least momentarily. MSU had a chance to extend the lead further, but Mady had the ball slapped away again while getting ready to jump for a dunk, and OSU brought it down for a triple of their own. OSU called a timeout following their make, and Izzo used the opportunity to go off on Mady as he approached the bench. The score was 64-57 at the under-8.
Joey came out and nailed a three, but then OSU would score the next seven to cut the game to a three-point Spartan advantage. After an MSU timeout, Walker would convert a layup, and after a couple empty trips, MSU was up 69-64 at the last TV timeout.
It seemed like both teams were getting to the free-throw line as the game approached its end, and Ohio State started fouling intentionally at the 40-second mark, and the game still a five-point contest. From here, AJ Hoggard iced the game, making 5 of 6 from the stripe in the final 30 seconds. With about six seconds left, Izzo made the substitutions one at a time to allow the seniors to have their Breslin goodbye. Hall came out first, followed by Whitens (who had come in just seconds earlier), Walker, and finally Hauser, after some moments of uncertainty if he was going to kiss it or not, after having done this last year. MSU held on for a victory with a 84-78 final score.
Real easy. MSU is shooting great from deep and even getting some long twos to fall. When they can’t get their shot off, Walker is proving more than capable of saving a possession by creating his own shot off the dribble. A friend told me he heard the ESPN broadcast say he is converting around 50% of his shots with under 5 seconds on the shot clock; that is a good security blanket to have. He and Hoggard are both able to drive and score in the lane, and have been doing it with more frequency these last couple of weeks. But this was an ugly game for our post play. By my count, Mady had the ball taken from him three times while under the basket and Kohler lost it twice in the same scenario. And Joey, while showing a couple nice scoring moves down low, also put up two absolutely garbage shots from inside the paint. Early on, this game felt like it could be a blowout. Credit to Ohio State for digging in and giving MSU a great battle today. Hopefully winning a close game, and more importantly not blowing a game late, will pay dividends for this team as they begin postseason play.
Senior Day Festivities:
I forgot what a cool ceremony this is. Again, tributes were made for other seniors aside from the players. Here, it started with the team’s athletic trainers and managers got to walk out with their family members and do the obligatory kiss of the logo. Finally, we got onto the players. Before each one came onto the court, the jumbotron played a prerecorded video of each talking about their memories being an MSU basketball player. Jason Whitens was first, followed by Tyson Walker, and Malik Hall last. Each one, along with their family was greeted by Lupe & Tom for hugs and photos. When Tyson was taking his picture with the Izzos, the crowd began cheering “One more year!” After all the players were out and Izzo jumped on the microphone, he called for the crowd to repeat that cheer. Tom would then give a speech about this group of seniors, the difficulties of this season, and the work still to be done. He said that players come to MSU to hang banners, laying out a challenge to his team and getting one last cheer from the fans.
Okay, so since I received a media pass today, I got to attend the post-game press conference and then I had access to the locker room where more players were made available for interviews. I will say it is crazy how close those news cameras have to get to the players so that the microphones will pick up everything. I felt uncomfortable for those guys.
I do want to share a couple quotes from Izzo at his press conference. He started off with a little speech before fielding questions. In his speech, he was very blunt in stating, “Our defense has been terrible and that’s got to change.” He would elaborate by saying, “When you’re shooting this well, you should be able to get back on defense.” The implication here is that he is seeing his guys not hustling back and getting into their defensive sets.
One reporter asked Izzo how we would be approaching tomorrow, referring to the other Big Ten games, and Izzo answered, “I go to church.”
When asked about the team’s prospects for the tournament, he commented, “We’ve proven that we can play with anyone. Unfortunately, anyone can play with us.” And he also gave us this testament to wrap things up. “We’re going to defend better than we have, I promise you that.”
So there you have it. The Big Ten regular season is over for our MSU Spartans. We will find out tomorrow where they end up being seeded for the conference tournament. March Madness is upon us!