How Michigan State basketball beat Northwestern and what it means

Michigan State forward Malik Hall (25) grabs rebound against Northwestern during the second half at
Michigan State forward Malik Hall (25) grabs rebound against Northwestern during the second half at / Junfu Han / USA TODAY NETWORK
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Even if it was ugly, Michigan State basketball snatched victory from the hands of defeat Wednesday night, beating the Northwestern Wildcats, 53-49.

While the second half was the better half for the Spartans, that doesn't mean it was great. The Spartans have never, should never, and will never apologize for a win, but while it counts in the win column, the box score and eye test should leave fans feeling shaky about this team moving forward.

It's no secret that this team has woefully underachieved in the regular season, with the current senior class being one of the least decorated in the Tom Izzo era. Only two players (Malik Hall and Steven Izzo) have Final Four rings and it would be zero if both didn't use their extra COVID year.

The other seniors do not have a conference regular season title, no conference tournament title, and have only seen one Sweet 16.

I understand that there's a section of fans that think making the NCAA Tournament in itself is an accomplishment and that we should just be grateful that we have that level of success. But those people see the program as "good enough" and good enough is the enemy of great. It also seems like that same attitude has spread to some of the team. Thirty games in and this team still can't put a full game together, yet it grinded out a gritty win.

Let's see how they won despite scoring just 20 points in the first half and shooting 11.8% from beyond the 3-point arc.

How they won

Two categories: Offensive rebounds and made free throws. While the offensive rebounds alone should have made the winning margin larger, the most important part was that those extra possessions ran time off the clock, resulted in Northwestern fouls, and kept the ball out of Boo Buie's hands.

With neither team being able to pull away, 3-4 extra Wildcat possessions could have easily resulted in an extra three, and-one, or any other momentum shifting shot. In a low-scoring, rock fight-type game. every possession counts and grabbing 19 offensive rebounds (nine more than NU) easily made the difference in this game.

Malik Hall willed this team to a win, scoring 15 and grabbing a whopping 17 rebounds, which is seven more that Mady Sissoko, Carson Cooper, and Jaxon Kohler combined. Yes, it helps that Northwestern is the worst rebounding team in the Big Ten and is 345th (fifth-worst) in the country. Yes, it helps that the Wildcats' second leading rebounder was out. But the Spartans grabbed rebounds when they needed rebounds, even if it was a perfect opportunity for the center position to shine, but beggars can't be choosers.

In a close game like this, free throws also made the difference. While making 65 percent of your free throws is not great, the +7 made free throws differential plays a role in a four-point game, especially when two of those free throws come at the end of the game to extend the lead from a one-possession game to a two-possession game (thank you, Tre Holloman).

The reason the Spartans were able to be +7 on made free throws and +10 on free throw attempts? Tough defense and grabbing those offensive rebounds. Six of Northwestern's 17 fouls came on MSU offensive rebounds, resulting in seven total points from free throws and the possession immediately following the foul. Missed free throws haunted the Spartans, most notably against James Madison, Minnesota, and Ohio State, but Holloman's free throws came at the most clutch time in the game, where everyone would have bet their mortgage that Boo Buie would have drained a game winning three if NU was only down one or two.

When tournament games come around, the Spartans can't be in the business of leaving 5-7 points off the board from the charity stripe unless they can draw fouls at the rim instead of missed layup after missed layup.