Ramstein Air Base, Germany
For the second straight season, No. 14 Michigan State opened the year with a game for the military.
For the second straight season, Michigan State is headed home with a loss.
But after losing to top-ranked North Carolina last season aboard the USS Carl Vinson, the Spartans had winning on their minds this time.
Much is expected of the Spartans, not as much from the Huskies. The only problem was, convincing the Huskies was an entirely different story.
Unranked but still with plenty of experience, Connecticut opened the game on a 20-6 run and withstood a second-half rally to beat Michigan State, 66-62, on Friday in front of a packed house at the air base.
The Spartans looked bad early and merely OK late.
The whole experience had Michigan State coach Tom Izzo wondering why his team couldn’t play with the same approach the military does every day.
“You know what, I love these guys,” Izzo said of the military members on hand. “They’re the best, but we’ve got to win games, too. They’ve got to do their job, we’ve got to do our job. They did their job, and we didn’t do our job. So, I still love (the troops) death and I spent as much time as I could with them, but I don’t love us as much right now because we did not come out and play like the military works, and that disappoints me.”
Izzo took plenty of time signing autographs afterward and smiling for photos. His team’s performance hasn’t changed the way he feels about the game.
“Still am,” Izzo said when asked if he was still a big for the game. “It’s disappointing. I guess I got to do a better job of making everybody realize that you gotta come to win, too. And yet we practiced really well, I have no complaints about the focus or anything, I just thought we looked like a bunch of freshman early.”
That was hard to argue with as Michigan State committed eight turnovers in the first half – it had 15 for the game – and Connecticut was hitting shots left and right.
The Huskies made 12 of their first 13 shots and had its biggest lead at 34-18.
“It’s going to happen,” Izzo said. “We’ve got a lot of guys different playing positions they’re not used to playing, but I still think we played so poorly early that I think we got shell-shocked. A couple of turnovers, and we were just back on our heels, and I was a little surprised at that, but give them credit. They played well.”
Despite Connecticut’s impressive start, Michigan State managed to overcome the early jitters and ended up playing better.
A 15-4 run late in the first half cut Connecticut’s lead to 38-33 before a final late basket put the Huskies up 40-33 at halftime.
The Spartans kept the momentum going in the second half and after Connecticut took a 45-39 lead with a little more than 17 minutes to play, they started to mount a comeback.
Keith Appling, who led the Spartans with 17 points, hit a 3-pointer to get the ball rolling and when freshman Gary Harris hit a jumper from the win less than two minutes later, the Spartans had their first lead at 46-45.
But the Huskies quickly pushed it back to 50-46 before the teams went back to trading baskets.
Harris then came up big again, hitting a 3-pointer with a defender in his face to cut Connecticut’s lead to 56-55 with 8:18 to play. A little more than two minutes later, Harris swiped the ball in the lane and fed Appling, who went the distance for a layup and was fouled with 5:43 to play. His free throw put Michigan State up 58-56.
But on the next trip down the court, Shabazz Napier hit a 3-pointer to put Connecticut back in front by a point and provide a lead the Huskies would not relinquish.
The Spartans had a chance late after getting a stop and calling timeout with 29.5 seconds to play and trailing by two points, 62-60, but Appling missed a shot in the lane and Connecticut grabbed the rebound. Napier was fouled with 13.6 seconds to play and made both free throws to put the Huskies ahead, 64-60, and put the game away.
“We just dug ourselves too deep a hole to get back into the game,” said Derrick Nix, who had six points and 11 rebounds. “We did bring it back and went ahead, but the way we started it off kind of killed the momentum.”
Branden Dawson was a bright spot, scoring 15 points and grabbing 10 rebounds for Michigan State and Harris finished with 11 points.
Travis Trice did not play for most of the second half after getting hit in the face.
Izzo said he might have concussion and would be tested when the team returned to East Lansing.
“He was out of it and maybe it’s a bad concussion,” Izzo said. “But I don’t know, they just said it might be. They’ll do some testing but when you look like he did I’m not expecting anything positive here for awhile.”
And looking at the way Michigan State played for the first 15 minutes, it’s no surprise Connecticut made them look out of it as well.