INDIANAPOLIS—Michigan State’s Travis Walton wasn’t happy with his team’s effort at halftime.
Clinging to a three-point lead over Minnesota, Walton felt that his team wasn’t improving. The mantra for a team that wants to win a championship, he said, is “always getting better.” Walton went so far as to say his team was “running in place a little bit, not taking that step forward.”
All of that changed when the Spartans stepped foot on the Conseco Fieldhouse floor for the second half.
In a space of less than seven minutes, Walton connected with three different teammates on highlight-reel alley-oops to swing the game’s momentum and propel the Spartans to a 64-56 win.
The first of the three game-changing plays came on the very first possession of the half. Coach Tom Izzo called a play coming out of the locker room to “try and get [Raymar Morgan] going.” Walton assisted, Morgan slammed it home, and the Spartans were on their way.
According to Walton, “that dunk gave us momentum and took them down a little bit at the same time.”
"Basketball is not just about scoring,” he said. “It’s about making assists, setting people up, being the decoy.”
Less than five minutes later, Walton connected with sophomore Durrell Summers for the most breathtaking of his game-high six assists. The resulting one-handed tomahawk jam left eyes wide, jaws open, and seemed to drain more of the life from a pesky Minnesota squad.
“On that one, I just threw it up there and said, 'Go get it,'" a satisfied Walton recounted afterwards. “We need those types of plays for momentum shifters.”
The senior captain wasn’t done. He completed the alley-oop trifecta by feeding Marquise Gray for the Spartans’ very next basket, helping his school continue an 8-0 run.
In most leagues, an 8-0 run doesn’t seem like a big deal. In this conference—and this tournament—it’s an almost insurmountable spurt.
“If you aren’t scoring, you have to earn your way on the floor,” Walton concluded. [Setting up my teammates] is my way of earning minutes. I was able to make my presence felt.”
(Admittedly, the senior leader is more humble than honest. After being named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year earlier this week, I doubt Coach Izzo is planning to keep Walton on the bench much.)
Anyway, with recent stumbles by potential top seeds Connecticut and Pittsburgh, the Spartans know the door is open for bigger and better things in the weeks to come, namely a possible slot at the top of an NCAA region. Walton admitted as much.
“We watch what’s going on," he said. "We’re amazed like everybody else [at the six-overtime game in New York Thursday]. And yeah, we want it [a top seed]."
The scary thing for the Spartans' future opponents is that this team is just now getting healthy. After center Goran Suton's early-season knee injury and Raymar Morgan's walking pneumonia, MSU is hoping to peak at the perfect time of year.
"Our best basketball is still to come," Suton promised after the game.
And that is exactly what the remaining teams here in Indianapolis—and frankly, the rest of the nation—is afraid of.