by John Fanta
WASHINGTON, DC — This week’s hotel meals for Michigan State players included an extra side dish. Their phone alarms were accompanied by an alarm of other sorts. The first words from multiple players on Thursday were the same.
Why? Because Tom Izzo wanted to cement it in his Spartans’ minds. If they were going to advance to the Elite Eight, they were going to “cut out, rebound; cut out, rebound; cut out, rebound.”
That’s exactly how the 24-year Michigan State head coach said it after leading Sparty to an 80-63 rout of LSU in Friday night’s East Regional Semifinal at Capital One Arena. Izzo and his staff put up signs all over the team hotel, serving as the “gentle” reminder to his team.
That reminder turned into results, as the Spartans out-rebounded the Tigers 21-10 in the first half and ended up winning the battle on the glass, 41-34.
“That was our focus coming into the game, just cut outs, rebounds,” said senior guard Cassius Winston. “We knew that was going to be our way to win the game. And those bigs did a great job. They put bodies on people the whole night.”
Senior Kenny Goins did the most dirty work on the glass, putting up 11 rebounds to go with 6 points. On top of that, sophomore Xavier Tillman had 12 points to go with 8 boards.
Combine the efforts offensively with limiting LSU star freshman big man Naz Reid to 10 points on 5-of-14 from the field, and it was a solid job defensively by Sparty in the post as well.
Yet, this team’s backbone is Winston, and he was no different Friday night. The second team All-American tallied 17 points and eight assists, which is just another night in the office for the senior.
“Of course Cassius is Cassius,” said Izzo. “He found ways to get things done. And yet because I rode him, I think he tired a little bit.”
The key moment in the game? LSU connected a 5-0 run to close the first half to a 7-0 run to open the second, and Michigan State’s lead was cut to just 40-35. Sparty proceeded on a 16-6 run, including an 11-0 surge in less than two minutes to balloon the advantage back to 15.
For this win, it all goes back to that battle on the glass for the Spartans, though. While Izzo was giving his players a reminder, he recalled a story from a legend that’s stayed in his head as well.
“My old boss, Jed Heathcote, used to call me and say, ‘hey, your best offense is when you throw it at a basket and send four guys to go get it. Then all of a sudden Charles Bell and Jason Richardson, who could jump out of the arena — Zach Randolph, I just had some guys during that stretch that attack the boards.”
Just like Heathcote’s quotes stay with Izzo every day, so to will those sheets of paper on the Michigan State’s hotel walls until Sunday.
The Spartans are 40 minutes away from a Final Four.