EAST LANSING, Mich. — Out of a timeout in a 65-all game with 20 seconds remaining, there was no doubt who would get the ball for No. 4 Michigan State.
Twice in the game on Saturday against No. 3 Purdue, Miles Bridges had said in the huddle that he wanted the ball. Both times, the Spartans gladly gave it to their star sophomore. With the game on the line, he didn’t need to ask for it.
Bridges didn’t need to call for a screen or call bank when he let it go. In the huddle, he had called “game,” according to senior big man Gavin Schilling.
With Purdue’s Dakota Mathias backing off ever so slightly because of the threat of a drive, Bridges rose up from several feet beyond the 3-point arc on the right wing and watched it cleanly drop through the rim, setting off a frenzy at the Breslin Center as he ran down the court in celebration.
“He was supposed to drive it and get fouled,” coach Tom Izzo said, “but if you’re from Flint [Mich.] you say, ‘To hell with that. I’ll just jack a 3.’ And it worked out.”
It took 9 minutes for the final 2.6 seconds to play out, but once the buzzer sounded, Michigan State had secured a 68-65 victory. The Spartans moved to 24-3 overall and 12-2 in Big Ten play, passing Purdue via the tiebreaker to seize second place behind Ohio State.
So the weight of the ball had to feel like a lot more than 22 ounces as Bridges elevated to shoot it. Everything he had done up to that point exuded confidence, but when the ball left his hand, it took until the rippling of the net for him to feel sure.
“I thought it was gonna roll around or something was gonna happen, but it went in,” Bridges said.
In his first year playing the 3 spot after a year at the 4, Bridges had taken consistent criticism for settling for jump shots and not getting to the rim off the dribble as much as he needed to. ESPN analyst Dan Dakich tweeted that Bridges “has no game,” setting off a firestorm within the Michigan State fan base.
Bridges didn’t have much to say about it. He waited for his opportunity, hit contested jumper after contested jumper en route to 20 points and showed that shooting ability does, in fact, constitute having a game. A baseline drive and dunk against one of the Big Ten’s best defenders in Mathias showed he can do much more.
“I think he’s really starting to become more aggressive,” Izzo said. “He wanted that ball, and I wanted to give it to him. I just was happy for him. He came back to be in these kind of games. He came back to try to help us win a championship of some kind.”
The Spartans have a chance to win multiple kinds. Had they lost this game, the Big Ten regular season title would have effectively been out of reach. Now they’re one Ohio State loss from a tie atop the standings. And that would set up advantageous seeding for the Big Ten Tournament to follow.
Those championships don’t typically come up in the offseason. When Bridges announced his plans to return for another season, he spoke of winning the NCAA Tournament. But a conference title would mean more than many have let on.
“Us as seniors, that was one goal that we set for ourselves to do,” Schilling said, “and that’s one thing that I haven’t accomplished since I’ve been here in my career at Michigan State, so that’s one thing that I really want to accomplish is get that Big Ten outright title.”
The schedule sets up favorably for Michigan State to run the regular season table, having just beaten what will surely be its final ranked opponent. The Spartans can’t afford any slip-ups, particularly if they want to lock up a No. 1 seed in March.
Once there, Michigan State will go as far as Bridges takes it. Point guard Cassius Winston said the Spartans put the ball in their star’s hands, ready to accept the consequences or the rewards. On Saturday, it was a lot of the latter.
“These are the moments that I dream about, the reason why I come back,” Bridges said, “because I knew that I would be in a position to do something like this. It’s just a blessing to be here.”