EAST LANSING –Michigan State basketball took the floor Sunday afternoon against No. 9 Tennessee for the second of two exhibition games to start the season. After a dominant victory against Hillsdale on Wednesday, this top-ten matchup gave MSU its first test of the season. Though it was just an exhibition game, the contest had the feeling of a tournament game as the Volunteers took the win late, 89-88.
The first half came down to fundamentals: turnovers and free throws. One put the Spartans in a big hole early, the other let them climb right out of it.
Turnovers were an issue early for the Spartans. They gave up the ball eight times in the first eight minutes of the game, three of them at the hands of senior center Mady Sissoko. The Volunteers were capitalizing off these mistakes too. Jordan Gainey and Dalton Knecht led the scoring for Tennessee in the first half with 15 and 14 points, respectively. The Volunteers kept hitting shots and the lead ballooned to 17-1 early.
“The turnovers were a joke,” coach Tom Izzo said. “Our turnovers led to some touchdowns that they got early.”
Free throws are what seemed to keep MSU in the game. Thanks to some lax foul discipline from Tennessee, which had two players pick up three fouls by halftime, MSU was able to chip away at the Volunteer lead. The Spartans hit 10 of 14 in the first half, which kept Tennessee from keeping it out of reach.
After lying dormant for most of the first half, the MSU offense exploded to carry the team into the halftime break. Across the final ten minutes of the first half, the Spartans went on a 25-10 run to cut the lead to three.
With the points spread evenly among the Spartan scorers, no one player led the charge alone. Graduate forward Malik Hall ended the half as the leading MSU point-scorer with nine.
In the second half, Tennessee regained a sizable lead. Gainey and Knecht continued to lead the way for the Volunteers. MSU defenders simply couldn’t contain the Tennessee duo as they kept the Spartans out of arm’s reach for most of the second half. The two would end the game shooting a combined 54 percent.
Meanwhile, the Spartan offense looked much more comfortable than they did to start the game. Tyson Walker emerged as the leading scorer for MSU, picking up 17 points in the second half. This included a nine-point stretch late in the game to bring the Spartans within one.
Walker wasn’t the only Spartan to make a difference in the second half. Freshman Coen Carr made his presence felt inside. The forward picked up four rebounds along with nine points from four made field goals, all of which were dunks.
In the final minutes, this exhibition game gave the Spartans their first taste of March. With MSU down five, senior guard A.J. Hoggard went to the line and made both free throws to make it a one-possession game. Then on the inbound, Walker got the steal, and the ball was immediately kicked back out to Hoggard who tied the game with a three-pointer. In a game where the Spartans were at one point down by 18, it was an achievement to come all the way back and tie the game and potentially win it in overtime.
An overtime win wasn’t on the cards for MSU, however. On the ensuing inbound, Tre Holloman picked up the foul on Gainey, who sunk the winning free throw and gave the Volunteers an 89-88 win.
This game revealed some positives and negatives for the Spartans. The bad news is that avoidable mistakes cost MSU the game. In the first half, turnovers allowed Tennessee to take a commanding lead and gave the Spartans a mountain to climb as soon as the contest started. In the end, it was a foul at half-court when there was almost no chance of a shot going in that ultimately handed MSU the loss. Without the mental mistakes, the Spartans would have gone into the regular season riding a gutsy win against a top-ten opponent.
“We got a lot of work to do,” Izzo said. “We’re gonna take care of the ball better.”
On the other hand, this game revealed that the Spartans feel right at home in a down-to-the-wire game. Down 18 in the first half, MSU rallied right back to take it within three by the time they went into the locker room for the halftime break. In the final minutes, some clutch baskets put the Spartans in a position to win. Though they lost the game in the final seconds, this game showcased a serious clutch mentality. For a team with high expectations and title aspirations, that’s going to be a good skill to have come March.
The Spartans will begin their campaign next Monday, November 6 when they take on James Madison in the Breslin Center. That game will be shown on Big Ten Network at 8:30 p.m.