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The Spartans were led by PF Xavier Tillman who had 11 points and 13 rebounds. His second double-double of the season. G Joshua Langford had 15 points and four rebounds. Kyle Ahrens who started for an injured Matt McQuaid who remained back in East Lansing added 15 points and three rebounds. Cassius Winston had 13 points and six assists. Winston fouled out at the 4:01 mark of regulation. Including the overtime, he missed the final nine minutes. Nick Ward rounded out the Spartans double-digit scorers with 14. The unsung hero was Kenny Goins who had no points but was stellar on defense and had an amazing 17 rebounds.
Tom Izzo said of the game, “I’m disappointed in how we played. I thought we did another horrendous job at the beginning of the game. I don’t know how many turnovers we ended up with. Seventeen, but we had 11-12 in the first half. And a couple of guys that probably played some of their best basketball, Cassius (Winston) played pretty well. Kenny Goins, I thought did an excellent job. But we missed layups. We missed one-and-one three throws. I felt sorry for Foster (Loyer), he made 117 free throws in a row in high school and just didn’t work out tonight. But, a couple of plays we made and we had the ball with 30 seconds left and turned it over. And then we had a play called and we just didn’t execute as well, but in the second half, I thought that Josh (Langford) played better. I thought we executed better. Now it’s a good team, good team, big team. And our number one key was not to get them to the foul line and we did a hell of a job. They shot 41 of them (free throws). And I can’t even blame the officials except – never understanding the breakaway, but other than that.”
The Spartans shot 47% from the field including 40% from the three. The Spartans shot an abysmal 61% from the free throw line and had 14 assists on 28 baskets.
Izzo added about the game that, “Inches, inches. Poor Xavier (Tillman), who I thought played his tail off, why are you trying to dunk that? Just lay it in. It was a game of inches. Josh (Langford) had that rebound, if we just hold on to it. We had a timeout. We just did some things that weren’t good enough to win. It’s a game of inches, and we didn’t value the inches. Give them credit. They had some shots and some plays, and yet give us credit when Cassius (Winston) went out and we hung in there, trying to throw a couple of different lineups in there. And we needed an offensive lineup and we needed a defensive lineup. Just made someone uncharacteristic, ridiculous plays. Following a guy 35-feet from the basket and things like that. You can’t do that if you’re going to win at this level, especially on the road against a good team. It is a good team. They should’ve beat Marquette and gave Tennessee a hell of a game. So it’s a very good basketball team. So are we. But, tonight we didn’t do the little things and as you said, maybe we’ll learn from it, maybe we won’t.”
U of L head coach Chris Mack said of the contest, “Really tough game. Really, really, hard-fought game. You have so much respect for the opponent coming in—Final Fours, Hall of Fame coach, great players, system they believe in. They take in so much pride. Where we weren’t very good was on the glass. Where they weren’t very good was turning the ball over. It’s great to see us get to the foul line as often as we did against a big-time opponent. And here’s the thing: I don’t think certain players played very well for us. I don’t want to come out of this thinking or saying, ‘We played a perfect game,’ because we were far from perfect. We’re far from perfect. We have a lot of room to improve. Certain players have a lot of room to improve, and we expect them to. I do want to thank our crowd. It was awesome. I love the Louisville faithful—they wanted a game like this, wanted some good news around here and happy that we could deliver against a very, very, well-respected opponent and one of the best teams in the country.”
The Spartans led the battle of the boards 47-30. Izzo played 11 players including all five freshmen. Gabe Brown led the freshmen with six points, both three pointers that he drained without hesitation, reminding many of his days as a super star at Belleville High School.
Izzo said of Brown’s performance, “I really appreciate you guys, because I’m not really happy the way we played and instead of you guys jumping on me, you’re trying to find the silver lining and I appreciate that. I thought we did get something out of Gabe. I just thought that our freshmen did look like freshmen. And yet, there’s nothing like the good experience to go on the road and lose a tough game. When, as you say, the inches matter, usually that will make you make practices a little better in what you talk about, or film sessions on what you explain and what’s going to happen. I think that Gabe learned something. It’s not the offense of those guys. They have to learn how to guard some people and all of them struggled in that area. I don’t want to under shadow Goins and Kyle Ahrens played his tail off. He played more minutes than he’s ever played in his life. He played hard and Kenny was good. X played good. Xavier played very good. He just missed a layup. You’d have to be in a practice from all coaches. Whenever you do the layup line, which every coach does, every minute. Start every practice and every coach says ‘layups cost you guys games.’ But maybe I’ll just keep rewinding those things. Free throws cost you games. Those are things you have more control over and yet I thought Louisville was a very good team. I’ll be honest with you, when we were six down at halftime, I was surprised. Or whatever we were down. I didn’t think we played very good. I don’t know how he thought they played. He’s got a good team. He’s got a lot of people to bring in and got some size.”
Mack added, “I’m not pleased with the 17-rebound differential. That’s arguably a top-five offensive rebounding team every year. Every year. Players and jerseys change, the way they rebound doesn’t. We knew that. So, that’s a good litmus test for us, because if we don’t get better in that area, that’s really going to be an Achilles’ heel. You’ve got guys getting offensive rebounds off free throws. You’ve got long ones where our guards don’t account for their man. You’ve got some of them where guys get ‘big-boyed’. So, we’ve got to get better in that area for sure.”
But the brutal loss of Winston proved to be the nail in the coffin. Despite not having him for the final 9:01 and being able to push it to overtime, the Spartans were never the same. With backup PG Matt McQuaid at home, Kyle Ahrens was terrific making up for the loss of McQuaid scoring, but is not a PG and Winston simply ran out of gas.
Mack said of the loss of Winston at the 4:01 mark of regulation for the Spartans that, “It’s their first true road game. They were in Las Vegas, just like we were in New York, and I understand they had more fans than anyone. It’s a tough challenge. We’ll have our first one coming up on Saturday. It’s been their Achilles’ heel to date. Knowing Coach (Tom) Izzo and how his teams improve, they’ll get that shored up. We weren’t coming in with a game plan to turn them over. We wanted to stay solid, stay within our gaps, make sure our ball-screen defense was good, try to double (Michigan State forward) Nick Ward when we could. There were just a few decisions they made, that without watching them on tape, some were errant passes, some of them were out of aggressiveness, but that’s sort of been their Achilles’ heel and it continued tonight.”
I asked Izzo about the loss of Winston and him simply battling and running out of steam. The Spartans Hall of Fame head man said, “I told Mark Dantonio all year that it’s really great of coaches, the way we say that ‘next man up’ all the time. I always say that if the man up was as good as the guy we lost, he’d have been a starter. So I’m not trying to fool anybody, McQuaid was our best defensive player by far. He’s played the most minutes on our team this year and it was a loss. Really his replacement did pretty well. What he did was he got hit in the last minute of the game against Texas – two minutes, a minute and a half – didn’t think anything of it, got hit in the thigh. And took a shower, no problems, took a bus ride, no problems, got in the plane and it must have bleeding. It must have been bruised bad and it swelled up and I’m sure then the altitude didn’t help it, because we were on a three-and-a-half-hour flight back, so he’s day-to-day. I think once the swelling he’ll be okay… there’s nothing wrong, it’s not a bone bruise or anything like that, but it just depends on how long the swelling stays in there to see if it atrophies or whatever. I don’t know, you can ask our medical people about that. I don’t feel like a very good coach right now, so I’m sure as hell not a very good medical guy.”
Foster Loyer took over the point with the loss of Winston, but while the youngster looks like a future super star, he is not today as a true freshman. The Clarkston High School star once hit 119 straight free throws in high school but had a critical miss that could have changed the outcome tonight.
Izzo said, “It’s hard for all the freshmen. Personally I think Foster (Loyer) will make 99 out of 100 free throws, unfortunately, he just missed that one. Defensively he has a lot of work to do. The last thing I would expect is him to miss the free throw, and the kid had a lot of pressure on him and went up and missed the free throw. I missed one in high school myself so I understand how that is. I feel sorry for him. He is not a great free throw shooter, he’s a prolific free throw shooter. I think his record in the state is 117 or 138 in a row. It just wasn’t our night.”
The Spartans return to action against Rutgers in New Jersey on Friday. That game tips off at 6:00 PM and can be seen on BTN.
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