Cassius Winston picked up a loose ball and sped downcourt.
With a quick glance behind him, Michigan State’s freshman point guard noticed three green jerseys. He couldn’t quite pick out which three teammates, but he figured if he tossed the ball off the backboard someone would go get it.
Freshmen Nick Ward and Josh Langford were among the group in his wake. They had burst out onto the fast break looking for an easy bucket from the unselfish Winston.
Farther behind, a fourth freshman sensed what was coming. Miles Bridges seems to possess a bit of a telepathic connection with Winston, and when he saw what was materializing he turned on the jets, snatched the ball above the rim and stuffed it down to give the Spartans a 40-28 lead.
Whenever excitement arose Thursday night, chances are the freshmen made it happen. Bridges, Langford, Ward and Winston scored or assisted on 69 points in Michigan State’s 88-72 win over Nebraska.
Now Spartans coach Tom Izzo wants to see that intensity on defense.
“I told them that I’d like to see them flying around like that on the other end,” he said after the game, “because on the other end, they’re kind of standing around.”
Standing around, though, proved good enough to help hold the Huskers to 39 percent shooting. The energy injected into the Breslin Center by big plays like the alley-oop seemed to provide all the intensity the Spartans needed to do the job on defense.
“We were just doing it for the fans,” Bridges said of his electrifying play.
And doing it for their teammates who can’t. With Eron Harris going down against Purdue on Saturday, Michigan State has now lost three scholarship seniors to season-ending knee injuries, leaving just Alvin Ellis III.
Beyond that, Matt McQuaid has struggled with his jumper all year. Kenny Goins and Tum Tum Nairn have never been formidable offensive threats. This team now belongs to the freshmen — offensively, at least.
Bridges and Ward each poured in 20 points against Nebraska. Langford added 17, the most in his young career. And Winston provided eight assists while scoring seven points.
This Michigan State team won’t go a step further than the freshmen take it. They provide the spark. They get the crowd involved. They deserve a huge share of the credit for the Spartans’ 7-1 home record in Big Ten play.
When Winston made the choice to toss the ball off glass — not for a layup, but for a highlight — he knew the consequences. Had it not worked out, Nebraska may have started a run of its own.
But because of that added flair, the energy in the building remained sky-high and spurred Michigan State to finish the half on a 21-5 run. That fearless attitude can get the Spartans in trouble, but when it works the results are breathtaking.
“That’s just a big play,” Winston said. “You don’t get those often, but we had an opportunity, so we took it.
“I would be on the bench for the rest of the half (if it hadn’t worked). I’d probably still be getting cussed out right now. But we made it happen. High risk, high reward.”