Xavier Tillman got off to a shaky start, filling in for Nick Ward in the starting lineup for No. 10 Michigan State.
Tillman finished strong, scoring a career-high 19 points and grabbing 10 rebounds, and Cassius Winston had 28 points help the short-handed Spartans come back to beat Rutgers 71-60 Wednesday night.
“It’s going to bring our team closer together,” coach Tom Izzo said. “Whether we’ll have enough, I don’t know. We’ll find out, but I’m not counting us out.”
Michigan State missed Ward and Joshua Langford on offense against defensive-minded Rutgers. Ward had hand surgery Sunday and Langford had season-ending foot surgery earlier this month, taking more than 30 points out of Izzo’s lineup.
Tillman, in particular, made the most of his opportunity.
“It builds tremendous confidence,” he said. “But Sunday, we have to get off to a much better start. This was a big win for us.”
The Spartans (22-5, 13-3 Big Ten) moved a half-game ahead of No. 7 Michigan and No. 15 Purdue in the Big Ten standings. They will play against the Wolverines on the road Sunday.
Michigan State started 0 of 6 and trailed 32-35 at halftime after making just 30 percent of its shots. The Scarlet Knights led by 11 points early in the second half before Tillman had six straight points and Michigan State’s best chance to score was off offensive rebounds.
“I thought we were getting in a little bit of a groove,” Rutgers guard Geo Baker said after scoring 17 points. “It felt good, but we were playing on the road and that team can explode at any time.”
Matt McQuaid made a game-tying 3-pointer with 12:39 left after Michigan State’s fourth offensive rebound of the possession. Winston made a go-ahead layup the next time the Spartans had the ball and they ended up coasting to a double-digit victory.
“The game was won because we rebounded,” said Izzo, referring to his team’s 45-31 edge on the boards.
McQuaid, the only player on the team who shot well early in the game, scored 11 points and Kenny Goins had five points and 12 rebounds. Kyle Ahrens, who has been in and out of the lineup with injuries, limped off the court after aggravating his back injury in the second half.
Ron Harper had 11 points for the Scarlet Knights (12-14, 5-11) as they lost for the fifth time in six games.
“We just have to stay positive,” Baker said. “We’re a really young team and we have to learn how to win.”
Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights compete hard in the Big Ten, but they don’t have enough scorers to win consistently in the highly competitive conference. They connected on fewer than 40 percent of their shots against the Spartans.
“Our numbers offensively are up over last year,” said coach Steve Pikiell, adding he’s counting on four freshmen to play regularly.
Michigan State: Tillman didn’t score until 5:39 left in the first half, but the sophomore forward scored the last basket of the first half and had six straight points early in the second half to cut the Spartans’ deficit to five.
“Xavier had some problems in the first half,” Izzo said. “I thought he did a helluva job in the second half.”
Winston complemented his scoring by finishing with eight assists.
“Cassius is the best point guard in the league and he played like it,” Pikiell said.
Rutgers: Host Minnesota on Sunday night.
Michigan State: Plays at Michigan on Sunday.
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