After a disappointing end to the season, Michigan State finally appears to be back on the right track.
The Spartans built up a big lead early against Northwestern and never looked back to come away with a 67-51 victory in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals Friday night.
Branden Dawson led the way for Michigan State with 16 points and nine rebounds while going 8-of-12 from the floor. Gary Harris was the only other player with double figures, adding 13 points in the win.
After the game, head coach Tom Izzo discussed the defensive effort:
Izzo, Harris and Dawson at the podium. "I'm proud of the way we played defensively."— State News Sports (@thesnews_sports) March 15, 2014
For Northwestern, it was the same old story, as Drew Crawford had a great game but did not get much help. The senior scored almost half of his team's points with 21 on the day.
Both teams started off slowly, as it was only 16-12 in favor of the Spartans 12 minutes into the game. However, the tournament's No. 3 seed finally turned it on with six quick points to expand the lead.
The next few minutes helped Michigan State truly pull away:
MBB: Michigan State ends the half on an 18-7 run over the last 6:15 to take a 40-22 lead at the break.— NU Sports Live (@NU_SportsLIVE) March 15, 2014
At this point, Izzo's squad was finally looking like the team that was at one point No. 1 in the national polls. Brian Hamilton of Sports Illustrated was certainly a believer:
Might be Michigan State is becoming the MSU that can win a title. Might be that it’s playing Northwestern. Either way, it's a 38-20 game.— Brian Hamilton (@BrianHamiltonSI) March 15, 2014
Michigan State held more than a 20-point lead for much of the second half, but Northwestern fought hard to cut the score down to 13 with under two minutes left. Unfortunately, the team simply could not get any closer, and the Wildcats were eliminated from the tournament.
Thanks to a first-round bye, this was the first tournament game for Michigan State. Izzo discussed what makes this year's event so important, via Joe Rexrode of the Detroit Free Press:
The tournament is gonna be big for us. Most years it’s not. I think it’s big that we get to play some games. This team needs to keep practicing and playing together. … We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel, we’re just trying to bring back some of the magic we had early in the year when we had everybody playing together.
The squad is finally healthy after dealing with multiple injuries to key players throughout the season, but this week will allow the squad to jell together heading into the NCAA tournament.
Ensuring the best possible seed in the Big Dance is also a high priority as the Spartans head into the semifinals against Wisconsin.
As for Northwestern, just getting this far was a surprise thanks to a first-round upset over Iowa. Unfortunately, the 14-19 squad is unlikely to get a bid in any postseason tournament.
Keith Appling, Michigan State: B-
All eyes were on Appling to see how he would fare in the Big Ten tournament after struggling to end the season. The point guard missed three games with an injury and had only averaged 4.7 points in six games since returning.
While he did not light up the scoreboard in this game, the more concerning part was that he also did not create opportunities for others, finishing with just two assists to three turnovers.
If the Spartans are going to make a run this year, they need a bigger performance from the senior leader.
Branden Dawson, Michigan State: A+
Like Appling, Dawson is another player who missed part of the season with injuries. However, the role player turned into a star on Friday as he was helping out all over the floor.
For a player who usually gets most of his points from the rim, he showcased an extended range in this one, according to Rexrode:
Also, Branden Dawson is raining jumpers.— Joe Rexrode (@joerexrode) March 15, 2014
Dawson had some big scoring games earlier in the year, and if he can get that back, Michigan State will be tough to beat.
Drew Crawford, Northwestern: A-
Northwestern's leading scorer fought hard to try to end his career strong and finished with 21 points. After missing most of his shots early, he closed strong to keep his team in contention as long as possible.
Michigan State knew what was coming and made sure that all of Crawford's attempts were difficult, but he still performed well and received a nice ovation when he left the court, as noted by Michael DeCourcy of Sporting News:
Think Drew Crawford just walked off the court for the final time as a collegian. Classy of MSU fans to give him a standing O. Class act.— Michael DeCourcy (@tsnmike) March 15, 2014
The senior will go down as one of the best players in Northwestern history, but he was unable to bring about as much team success as he likely hoped when he first committed.
Michigan State will advance to the semifinals to take on Wisconsin on Saturday at 4:10 p.m. ET on CBS. A win in this game will truly prove that the Spartans are healthy and ready to compete in March Madness.
On the other hand, a loss would be the fourth in six games, and it would lead many to doubt their ability going forward.
Northwestern likely ends its season on a low note as the squad continues to dream about its first bid in the NCAA tournament. With leading-scorer Crawford graduating, that will be even tougher to achieve next season.
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