PARADISE ISLAND NASSAU, BAHAMAS - For a while, things looked promising for Michigan State today. The Spartans hit threes. Crashed the boards. Pushed it on the break after every Baylor miss.
That all led to an early 10-point lead in the semifinals of the Battle 4 Atlantis. Turns out it was a mirage. Especially after Baylor switched its defense at halftime.
Gone were the open looks MSU found in Baylor’s first-half zone. The change to man-to-man extended the Bears’ pressure and rattled the young Spartans. They couldn’t score. And then they couldn’t defend.
Baylor rode the strategy switch – along with power forward Johnathan Motley’s game high 26 points -- to a 73-58 win, advancing to Friday’s final and sending MSU to the consolation bracket.
In the first half, when MSU was making shots and Baylor was struggling from the outside, it was Motley who kept the Bears in it. His assortment of turnarounds a jump hooks and dunks overwhelmed whomever guarded him.
Kenny Goins, at 6 feet 6, was too small. Nick Ward, at 6-9, was too slow, and too foul prone. Still, MSU survived the low-post imbalance because of its three-point shooting.
The Spartans hit five early threes, two by sophomore Matt McQuaid, one by freshman Cassius Winston, one by Harris and one by Bridges.
Even Tum Tum Nairn, who set a career high in threes Wednesday night against St. John’s, joined the shot-happy action. He hit a three to help MSU keep momentum.
After struggling to pull away from a bad St. John’s team Friday night, Tom Izzo decided to shake up the starting lineup. He inserted freshman wing Josh Langford for McQuaid hoping to get him going. Langford scored four first-half points but still showed hesitancy. He traveled, and rarely looked to shoot.
Langford is the better defensive player, too, and when Baylor’s perimeter players couldn’t make shots, the change looked good.
Baylor began its climb back with a banked three-pointer from Motley, a 6-10 forward, with about 5:20 left in the half and down by eight. Though he benefited from some luck, his work down low was all skill and size. He went 9-for-16 in the first half and scored 20 points
MSU, meanwhile, went cold the last several minutes of the first half, going 2-for-9 down the stretch. MSU had opened a 10-point lead by running after Baylor misses and working the ball around its matchup zone for good looks. Nick Ward punctuated the run with a dunk on a runout. He was fouled and made the free throw.
Baylor opened the second half with a 12-2 run, including two threes and two dunks, to swing a 3-point halftime deficit into a seven-point lead. MSU cut it to five three different times – on two free throws from Kenny Goins and Nick Ward – but Baylor kept making shots and finding Motley and turned the 12-2 run into a 23-8 run.
Miles Bridges led MSU with 15. He was the only Spartan in double figures. Eron Harris struggled to shoot for the second game in a row. He finished with three points on 1 of 9 shooting.
Michigan State falls to 3-3. They will play the loser of the Louisville-Wichita State semifinal.
Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.
Detroit Free Press