EAST LANSING — Tom Izzo expected a rock fight and got one.
Rutgers pounded the boards all night. But Michigan State basketball’s defense swarmed the Scarlet Knights despite all their second chances, and the Spartans put together an old-school showing in a must-win moment.
With a watershed moment for freshman Jaxon Kohler.
Kohler helped MSU overcome early post problems by getting career highs with 12 points and 11 rebounds in the Spartans’ tougher-than-it-looked 70-57 victory Thursday night at Breslin Center, a resurgent performance after two straight close losses.
“It shows our growth with our guys,” point guard AJ Hoggard said. “And even our young guys just stepping up tonight, with Jaxon coming in with a double-double. He didn’t really play that much last two games, his minutes went down a little bit more than usual. For him to just respond like that, it just shows you what kind of team we have, what kind of people we have in this locker room.
“So it just means a lot to us for us to bounce back like this.”
MSU (13-6, 5-3 Big Ten) held Rutgers to 2-for-17 3-point shooting while the Spartans took advantage of making 12 of 22 from deep. AJ Hoggard (16 points), Joey Hauser (13 points), Tyson Walker (12 points) and Jaden Akins (11 points) each had three 3-pointers.
It will be another quick turnaround for MSU, which travels to Indiana for a noon tipoff Sunday on CBS.
“It was good that we only had two days really to kind of digest and we had to move on right away,” said Hauser, who added six rebounds and four assists. “We couldn’t dwell on that Purdue loss. That one took a lot out of us, especially being up one with the last possession. But we had to move on right away, and that’s what we gotta do Sunday as well.”
Kohler went 6-for-9 from the floor and helped the Spartans overcome Rutgers’ 34-20 scoring advantage in the paint. The Scarlet Knights also had a 42-34 rebounding advantage, including an 18-6 edge on the offensive glass that led to a 15-4 margin in second-chance points.
“A rock fight, that means very physical, very tough games. Grinding games. We’re getting a little better at it,” Izzo said. “But I’m glad we won and got our butts kicked.”
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Clifford Omoruyi had 12 points and 12 rebounds, while Paul Mulcahy scored 12 and Caleb McConnell had 11 for Rutgers (13-6, 5-3). Leading scorer Cam Spencer went 3-for-14 and scored eight points, missing seven straight 3-pointers before hitting one late. The Scarlet Knights made just 34.4% of their shots.
Sluggish to sizzling
Like they did in Monday’s 64-63 loss to Purdue, which built a 24-11 lead early, the Spartans got off to another abysmal start.
They did so this time by getting hammered inside and on the boards by the Scarlet Knights, who got a pair of Omoruyi dunks to start the game and hit 6 of 12 shots to build a 14-5 lead in the first 6:03. Rutgers had an 8-3 edge on the glass early, capped by a three-point play by Mawot Mag at the first media timeout.
Right after that, Walker hits a 3-pointer right after that to spark a 12-2 run that was capped by another 3 from Hoggard, with a pair of Kohler nifty post moves for layups sandwiched between. It was that outside shooting that set the tone for how MSU got back into the game and overcame the advantage the Scarlet Knights built in the paint.
Walker scored six straight points on a conventional three-point play and his second 3-pointer before drawing his second foul and sitting the final 5:46.
Hoggard turned it over to McConnell, who took it in transition for a layup that put Rutgers back up by a point. But Hoggard answered with a strong closing stretch before the half, hitting a deep 3-pointer before the shot clock expired with 3:58. Hauser drained another 3, then Hoggard set up Akins for another from behind the arc as MSU took a 36-30 lead into halftime.
The Spartans gave up nine second-chance points as the Scarlet Knights had a 10-4 advantage on the offensive glass and a 21-16 rebounding margin at the break. Rutgers also had an 18-12 scoring edge in the post.
MSU made 7 of 13 3-pointers and limiting the Scarlet Knights to just 1-for-10 from behind the line. The Spartans hit 7 of 10 shots over the final 7 minutes while shutting down Rutgers to 3-for-15 in the last 8-plus minutes.
“I thought we got some good looks, and they made it tough for us, too, at times,” Scarlet Knights coach Steve Pikiell said. “We really had to attack the glass as a secondary way to score. … I don’t know if they’ve shot the ball better from 3 this season. They made 3s, and we didn’t.”
MSU’s rebounding woes remained after halftime, as the Scarlet Knights grabbed four offensive boards on their first possession of the second half that ended in an Omoruyi rebound and putback dunk.
Kohler again replaced starting center Mady Sissoko, and he quickly got a defensive board and then finished inside with a layup at the other end. And Izzo went with Kohler and Carson Cooper along with fellow freshman point guard Tre Holloman during one stretch, getting solid defense and rebounding during that stretch from his young big men.
The 6-foot-9, 240-pound Kohler logged a career-high 23 minutes, 23 seconds; he played just 13 minutes combined in MSU’s past three games against Wisconsin, Illinois and Purdue.
“Being out there with my teammates really made we want to be on the court more,” said Kohler, who added a career-best three blocked shots.
Rutgers cut it to a two-point lead on two free throws from Omoruyi after Hauser’s third foul, but Akins grabbed an offensive board at the other end then kicked it out to Holloman, whose off-balance dart of a pass found Sissoko for a layup .
After Walker had a 3-pointer waved off by a Rutgers foul call before the shot that initially had Breslin bouncing, Akins got a steal off Mulcahy and took it the length of the court for a two-handed dunk that again sent the crowd into hysterics and prompted a Scarlet Knights timeout.
MSU’s defense got two stops and a Kohler baseline jumper and Hoggard’s third 3-pointer to build its lead back to 50-41 with 11:06 remaining. The Spartans continued to smother Rutgers’ shooters, as Spencer missed three 3-point tries as the Scarlet Knights were 0-for-6 from deep after halftime until Spencer hit one with 10.8 seconds left and the outcome decided.
Hoggard finished with seven assists but committed four of MSU’s 10 turnovers. Akins stuffed the stat sheet with five rebounds, four assists, a career-high four steals and a block. The Spartans had 19 assists on their 26 baskets, and the 12 3-pointers trailed only the 13 they made in wins over Villanova and Portland back in November.
“It was kind of like about time that we made shots,” said Walker, who went 3-for-5 from deep and just 4-for-10 overall Thursday. “It’s been one person will make shots and nobody else will. Today, everybody made shots.”
Contact Chris Solari:email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari.
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Matchup: Michigan State (13-6, 5-3 Big Ten) at Indiana (11-6, 2-4).
Tipoff: Noon Sunday; Assembly Hall, Bloomington, Indiana.
TV/radio: CBS, WJR-AM (760).