PISCATAWAY, N.J. – Michigan State found itself in a dogfight in its first true road game of the season.
Not just early. Not just at halftime or the start of the second half. And not just with Rutgers on Tuesday night.
With each other.
Cassius Winston, who did not start the second half, responded with a pair of critical 3-pointers in the final four minutes as the third-ranked Spartans survived a scare against the Scarlet Knights for a 62-52 victory.
“I’m just happy we got the win,” said sophomore forward Miles Bridges, who had a game-high 21 points. “We got two wins last year on the road, so I’m happy to start off with getting at least one under our belt. It’s tough to play in the Big Ten on the road. If we can learn how to win on the road, then we’ll be a great team.”
MSU (8-1, 2-0 Big Ten) struggled offensively all night, shooting just 38.6 percent. Miles Bridges scored 21 points but made just 7 of 17 shots, and Joshua Langford was was 6 of 20 shooting for 15 points. Freshman Jaren Jackson Jr. had a career-high eight blocks to tie the MSU school record and scored all 11 of his points in the second half to help the Spartans slowly pull away.
But the story of the game was Nick Ward spending most of the second half on the bench and getting in a heated discussion with coach Tom Izzo after playing just 1 minute, 11 seconds in the second half and just 11 minutes for the game.
“Terrible. I don’t like that,” Ward said after the game. “I don’t like to sit and watch a game that I want to be playing in. (I’m) a competitor. Knowing my worth. Knowing what I can do. Proving everything.”
Izzo took a different approach, saying it was simply one bad day for Ward.
“Don’t start a fistfight or a quarterback controversy, because he’s been really good. I mean, the last two weeks, he’s been as good as anybody. So no, no, no, no, no. Don’t do that. … Hey, he had a bad game and didn’t play good.”
The Spartans, who were 2-7 on the road last season, looked sluggish early.
Rutgers (6-3, 0-2) paralyzed MSU from the outset, scoring the game’s first eight points and building a 12-5 cushion less than 7 minutes into the game.
The Spartans, who missed their first four shots and had four turnovers in the opening 8:45. But Bridges scored eight of his 13 first-half points during a 16-4 run to put MSU back on top, 21-11 His back-to-back 3-pointers forced Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell to call a timeout with 7:11 left in the half.
That woke up the Scarlet Knights, who ripped off an 11-2 stretch of their own to briefly reclaim the lead before Joshua Langford was fouled on a layup and made a free throw. The two teams went to half deadlocked at 26-26.
“I think we thought we could just come in here and win because we’ve been beating teams by 20,” Izzo said.
MSU held Rutgers to just 29.4 percent shooting in the period, but the Spartans also committed nine turnovers that led to eight Scarlet Knight points. They also got outrebounded 22-21 in the half and outscored 8-1 in second-chance points, thanks to Rutgers yanking nine offensive boards.
The Spartans’ 26 points and 25 shot attempts were both season lows for the first half. They made 40 percent from the field.
After halftime, Izzo did not start sophomores Winston or Ward, opting for seniors Tum Tum Nairn and Gavin Schilling.
“We challenged them at halftime,” Izzo said. “They didn’t respond the way we wanted, so we didn’t start them. No big deal.”
Winston did not check back into the game until more than seven minutes went by in the second half. Ward, meantime, sat sprawled on the bench for nearly 12 minutes before he returned. Schilling and freshman Xavier Tillman got the bulk of those minutes.
But Ward’s stint lasted just over a minute. He went to the bench, and he and Izzo had an animated conversation while Ward sat in a chair. During the next media timeout, Ward stood a few paces behind the team’s huddle, spending most of it staring up at the scoreboard. Assistant coach Dane Fife sat talking to ward for a while, but the forward slumped back in his chair for much of the game’s final 10 minutes.
Ward finished with three points on 1 of 5 shooting, while Winston had six points and three assists in 16 minutes.
In the locker room, Ward said he planned to “just put it behind me.” But not after he vented his frustrations.
“You said what do I need to do?” he asked. “I mean, if you look at it, let’s break it down. Can you guys name a big that killed me this year? Can you name a big that scored over eight points this year on me? Have I fouled out of any games?
“I’m good now. I’m fine now. I’m in a better spot.”
Down the stretch
Rutgers reclaimed a 35-34 lead with 13:35 to play. But the Spartans scored the next eight points and then held the Scarlet Knights scoreless for a 4 1/2-minute stretch as they slowly pulled away despite scoring four points of their own in that stretch.
After Rutgers cut it back to four, Winston hit a 3-pointer, set up a Jackson dunk and drained another triple to give MSU just enough cushion.
The Spartans return home for five of their final six games this month. That starts with Saturday’s game with Southern Utah (6 p.m./Big Ten Network).