DETROIT — Zach Thomas put up 11 shots in the first half Friday night against Michigan State. Six of them went in. It seemed like more, but at the end of the opening 20 minutes, the Bucknell senior forward had half his team’s points as the No. 14 seed Bison trailed the No. 3 Spartans by just 44-40.
Michigan State found its physicality and its answer for Thomas in the second half, holding him to just 1 field goal and 7 points after intermission en route to an 82-78 win in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at Little Caesars Arena. The Spartans (30-4) held Bucknell without a field goal for more than 11 minutes in the second half, building as much as an 18-point lead, 72-54, with 4 minutes, 16 seconds left to play before the Bison sank 6 3-point shots in the final 3:15 to make things interesting.
The Spartans rotated a variety of players on Thomas, starting with freshman forward Jaren Jackson Jr. Grad student Ben Carter got his turns, as did redshirt junior Kenny Goins, and even sophomore Miles Bridges. Michigan State was called for 22 fouls, a lot of them while trying to corral Thomas. Jackson had three fouls in 18 minutes. Goins played just 7 minutes but picked up 4 fouls. Carter was called for 2 fouls in 10 minutes.
Thomas didn’t sneak up on the Spartans. He was averaging 20.3 points coming into the game. They just made the adjustments they needed to make to extend their season.
“I think we just started to play a little bit harder. I think we played relaxed a little bit [in the first half],” Carter said. “He hit a couple tough shots early, he hit a big 3 over me and that kinda got him going. He hit a couple tough step-backs that were tough. You have to give credit to him. He’s a really talented player, player of the year in the [Patriot] League and watching the tape you knew this kid can really play. He could play at a high-major school. He’s got that type of ability.
“It’s not that we didn’t respect him. We were just playing a little lackadaisical and then decided to step it up.”
Thomas attempted just 3 field goals in the second half. His frustration grew as the physical play increased. He picked up a couple of fouls he wasn’t fond of and when teammate Nana Foulland missed a layup with 6:12 left, a play that Thomas felt warranted a whistle in favor of his teammate, he verbalized that thought. Thomas verbalized it too loud because even with a near-capacity crowd that gave LCA the feel of Breslin Center East, the officials heard him.
The technical foul was his fifth foul and sent him to the bench for the rest of the game.
“I drove from the top of the key, bounced it to Nana, and I thought he got fouled,” Thomas said. “But I was backpedaling. It was a physical game. I thought he maybe — missed a couple of calls, or got fouled on a couple of others before that.
“I was just backpedaling. I said, ‘What are you watching?’ from about, like, half court. And he was still on the baseline. I didn’t think he was looking at me. But apparently he heard me and he didn’t like it. I shouldn’t have said it, but I mean I didn’t agree with the call. At least warn me or something.”
The physical play, despite all the fouls that piled up on Michigan State, eventually turned the game in its favor.
“It played into our favor because we’ve got a lot of depth. We can go 10 deep,” Goins said. “They were playing more cautious to keep their best players in. It happens because you never know what they’re going to call but [Friday night] was one of those nights but we responded with the physical play. At the end of the day, we got what we wanted.”
That’s a win and a chance to play Syracuse in the second round at 2:40 p.m. ET Sunday.