It was too late for the No. 3 Michigan State Spartans to save their conference in the 2017 Big Ten-ACC Challenge, but they saved themselves Thursday with an 81-63 victory over the No. 5 Notre Dame Fighting Irish at the Breslin Student Events Center.
Thursday's clash between the Top Five teams was the headliner of the challenge, which the ACC still won 11-3 in convincing fashion despite Michigan State's effort.
The Spartans' backcourt trio led the way, as Miles Bridges (14 points, six rebounds and four assists), Joshua Langford (17 points) and Cassius Winston (17 points, seven assists and five rebounds) proved too much for Notre Dame.
Michigan State continued its hot play after it handled North Carolina by 18 points Sunday in the finals of the victory bracket at the PK80-Phil Knight Invitational.
It also put a halt to the momentum Notre Dame had following a Maui Invitational championship win over Wichita State.
The Fighting Irish team that won in Hawaii was nowhere to be found in the opening frame Thursday, as the Spartans nearly clinched the victory by halftime with a 46-26 advantage.
Their initial strategy was clear, as the backcourt rotation of Langford, Bridges, Winston, Matt McQuaid and Lourawls Nairn Jr. pushed the pace against a Notre Dame team that prefers to play in a controlled fashion.
According to Ken Pomeroy's adjusted rankings, the Fighting Irish entered Thursday's contest 337th out of 351 in tempo. The Spartans obliterated the slow pace in the early going, frequently getting out in transition the second they grabbed a rebound or forced a turnover. In turn, they saw a number of easy looks before Notre Dame's defense was even set.
Between the Fighting Irish's 10 turnovers and Michigan State's decisive 42-21 rebounding advantage, there were far too many empty trips for the visitors to prevent the fast breaks and daunting deficit.
To Notre Dame's credit, it found its comfort zone in the second half and battled to within single digits. Matt Farrell went scoreless in the first half but finished with 10 points and seven assists, which allowed the Fighting Irish to play more of a half-court game since they weren't chasing their own misses as much.
Bonzie Colson also played better in the second half after he scored just six in the opening 20 minutes, tallying 17 points, six rebounds and five steals.
Notre Dame needed the boost from its two stars to remain within striking distance—as well as 15 points from Rex Pflueger—but it didn't have the firepower to overcome the initial hole.
Much like a running team in football prefers to play from ahead and control the clock, Notre Dame was forced to play outside its typical approach far too often in comeback mode. It eventually ran out of steam, as all Michigan State needed to keep the visitors at bay were a handful of mini 5-0 or 8-2 spurts with a 20-point head start for the second half.
That was easier with a balanced attack, as four of the Spartans' five starters scored in double figures. Even the one who didn't—Jaren Jackson Jr.—did his part with three of the team's six blocks.
Michigan State will turn its attention toward Big Ten play after it tries to bolster its early resume out of conference with a Sunday contest against Nebraska. Notre Dame figures to bounce back with three winnable matchups against St. Francis, Ball State and Delaware before another Big Ten showdown against Indiana on Dec. 16.