West Lafayette, IN – In a mid-season conference game between two traditional Big Ten heavyweights featuring two of the top players in the conference, Michigan State’s Cassius Winston won his individual battle against Purdue’s Carsen Edwards, but it was Edwards’ Boilermakers who survived a late Michigan State rally to register a 73-63 victory and hand the Spartans their first conference defeat of the season and their first in the last 21 conference games dating back to last season.
Winston showed a jam-packed Mackey Arena crowd at Purdue why he, along with Edwards and Ethan Happ of Wisconsin, is one of the top players in the the Big Ten this season by scoring a game-high 23 points, handing out a game-high eight assists and pulling down a team-high seven rebounds. The 6-1 junior from Detroit put his leadership skills on display as well carrying the Spartans from a 23-point second half deficit to within four points at the five-minute mark before the Boilermakers regained their footing and staved off the Spartans comeback bid.
“What separates them (Michigan State) is how smart they are and that starts with Winston,” said Purdue Coach Matt Painter. “He knows when to get others involved and he knows when to score. He’s a great one and he’s played like that all year.” In regards to the Michigan State comeback, in which it outscored Purdue 24-5 at one juncture in whittling the lead to four, Painter said, “Cassius Winston made the difference. They have a great lead guard who can break people down.”
But for most of this game and starting just after the opening tip, the Boilermakers were the aggressors. Painter dipped into his bench early and got huge production from underclassmen reserves Matt Haarms, Aaron Wheeler and Eric Hunter Jr. Haarms, a 7-3 sophomore, rolled out of screens, accepted passes in the paint and used his size and reach to make all four of his first half shots in scoring eight points. Wheeler is a stretchy freshman big who brought a 4.8 point per game scoring average with him into the game. Wheeler easily eclipsed that mark in the first haif by connecting on all three of his shots, all from behind the three-point arc, in scoring nine points. A two-time Indianapolis high school player of the year playing his first season with the Boilermakers, the 6-3 Hunter made two of his three shot attempts to contribute five points. “Their bench beat us in the first half,” said Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo. “We were a joke in the first half.”
After going 2 for 7 from behind the arc in the first half, Purdue starting guard Ryan Cline found his shooting range after intermission. Connecting on over 41 percent of his shots from distance entering the game, Cline heated up in the second half to make all three of his long-range shot attempts. The senior, who shoots primarily off the catch, and likes mostly to shoot from above the top of the key, finished with a team-high 17 points.
Edwards was hoping to atone for a poor-shooting game against the Spartans when the teams first hooked up on January 8 in East Lansing, Michigan. In a game Michigan State won 77-59, the Spartans defense limited Edwards to 11 points on 3- of-16 shooting. Izzo assigned senior Matt McQuaid, who at 6-5 with good length is one of the conference’s best wing defenders, to guard Edwards. Staying attached to Edwards around screens, limiting dribble penetration and contesting shots from distance, McQuaid made life difficult for the normally high-scoring Edwards who finished with 14 points, ten below his average, on 4-of-19 shooting.
In shaping Michigan State into one of the top programs in the Big Ten since succeeding legendary Coach Jud Heathcoat, Izzo has made the Spartans synonymous with toughness. Year in and year out, Izzo’s teams defend and rebound at a high level while scheduling a good number of top non-conference opponents each season. But Purdue beat Michigan State at its own game on Sunday, winning the rebounding battle 42-33 and usually being first to the floor in pursuit of loose balls. “That was the most physical game we’ve played in this year,” said Izzo. “They took it to us; we didn’t take it to them.” Looking at the stat sheet and seeing that Purdue collected 16 offensive rebounds, Izzo said, “Sixteen offensive rebounds, that’s a joke.”
“Anytime you go up against a team like Michigan State, you have to try to beat them at their own game,” said Painter. “They were tougher than us at their place. We got into that effort category and got those rebounds that made the difference.”
Winston is a ball-dominant lead guard who creates for himself and teammates. He scores from all three levels. Defenders who play the drive run the risk of him scoring from behind the arc. Winston made 4-of-7 shots from distance against Purdue and finished the game connecting on 45 percent of his long-distance shots for the season. When he penetrates, Winston has an assortment of runners he shoots in the midrange. And shooting them off either his left or right foot, Winston makes it hard for potential shot blockers to time the jumps in attempting to block his shot. “Cassius got stronger as the game went on,” said Izzo. “He had a lot on his shoulders.”
Izzo’s last comment referenced his team’s injury problems. With wings Josh Langford and Kyle Ahrens missing the game because of injuries, Michigan State was playing shorthanded in the backcourt. “We went from being a very deep team to not a very deep team at all,” he said. “That part is disappointing and frustrating.”
Michigan State gets the week to try to heal before hosting Indiana in its next game on February 2. Purdue, winners of five in a row, returns to action at Penn State on January 31.