By: Matthew MacCormack
BOSTON- Blood streamed from Bryn Forbes’ elbow as he walked towards the Michigan State trainer.
Some had called the senior “soft” in the days leading up to Saturday’s matchup at Northeastern, but you could tell by the smile on his face what Forbes thought of those pundits. Moments earlier, with his team trailing NU, 15-12, early in the first half, Forbes dove for a loose ball in front of the MSU bench, grabbing possession and cutting his arm. Spartans Head Coach Tom Izzo leapt from his seat in excitement.
“Northeastern buried us the first ten minutes of that game,” Izzo said. “I thought [that play] changed our whole game. And if I told you that of all the people on my team, including my managers, he’d have been the last guy that’s got on the floor in the last year or so.”
Forbes and the No.1 Spartans, the first top-ranked team to grace the halls of historic Matthews Arena, took it to the Huskies all afternoon. After Forbes’ hustle play, Michigan State closed the half on a 22-10 run and never looked back. Solid efforts from Zach Stahl (18 points, seven rebounds) and David Walker (13 points, eight assists) weren’t enough, as the Spartans’ talent and physicality overwhelmed the home side, 78-58. Northeastern hung tough for the game’s first ten minutes and were the first team to outrebound undefeated MSU this season, but ultimately succumbed to the fate of the Spartans’ prior 11 opponents.
“Their physicality exerted itself on the game. We kind of let that impact us.” Northeastern head coach Bill Coen said post-game. “That’s why they’re the number one team in the country…They’re a physical bunch with tremendous depth.”
Earlier in the week, Coen compared Izzo’s group to Noah’s Ark, in that they “have two of everything,” and that depth was the key to MSU’s victory. Ten different Spartans played double-digit minutes, with Naismith-candidate senior Denzel Valentine (17 points, five rebounds, six assists) leading the way.
The contest was part of Northeastern’s “Winter Showdown,” which also included MSU’s men’s hockey women’s basketball teams battling the Huskies this weekend. Teams of Izzo’s caliber rarely travel to mid-major opponents, but the draw of Boston, as well as Matthews, which was built in 1910 and is the world’s oldest multi-purpose athletic building still in use, set the stage for Saturday’s matinee.
“This was another thing my AD did, and sometimes I question this stuff. But it gave us a good chance to play a quality team on the road,” Izzo said. “It’s a unique place…It’s pretty cool to look up in the rafters and see Reggie Lewis, and the Bruins, and the Celtics and that’s what’s Boston is all about.”
It was just the second time in program history that NU had faced a top-ranked team, the other coming in a 1995 clash with Duke. Coen said Saturday’s game was doubly special, given that it was at home.
“That was one of the draws for Coach Izzo and his program,” Coen said. “You come to a historic building, and you’re creating a memory and event. This is going to go on the long list of Matthews’ accomplishments.”
The arena’s first ever sell-out crowd was raucous from the opening tip, fueling an early lead for Northeastern. The Huskies led by as many as five points in the opening nine minutes, thanks to some dominant rebounding against a Michigan State team that had entered the game with a +17 average rebounding margin.
Forbes’ efforts seemed to awake the sleeping Spartans. MSU hit nine of their 14 shots in the final ten minutes of the opening frame, and went into the break up, 34-25.
The momentum continued, as sophomore guard Tum Tum Nairn (11 points, two steals) keyed a 12-0 run in a four-minute stretch early in the second half. Nairn, one of the country’s fastest players, pushed the pace to help MSU build an 18-point advantage. The Huskies couldn’t cut the lead lower than 12 the rest of the way.
“We weren’t playing Michigan State basketball in the first half,” Nairn said.
“(Izzo) told us that at halftime and we focused in.”
Despite the 20-point loss, Coen said he thought his team showed the effort necessary to win. However, the shots just weren’t falling, as the Huskies went just two of 16 from three and shot 37% for the game. A staunch MSU defense that entered the day as the 4th stingiest in the country certainly had lots to do with that.
“If there’s one portion where we didn’t execute our game plan was on the offensive end,” Coen said. “The effort was certainly there, but the execution was lacking at times.”
But for Izzo, who has taken the Spartans to 18 NCAA tournaments and seven Final Fours, the game proved that Northeastern has what it takes to make it back to the Big Dance this March.
“Northeastern’s got a good basketball team,” Izzo said. “They’re gonna be a team that’s gonna get in [the NCAA] tournament in my humble opinion.”