EAST LANSING, Mich. — Nick Ward took a couple of giant steps across the foul area, extended his big right arm and gave Miles Bridges a congratulatory hand slap. Bridges had just thrown down a thunderous dunk on the other end of the court off a pass from point guard Cassius Winston, which had been preceded by Bridges blocking a shot.
The Breslin Center crowd, still without the Izzone student section and no doubt subdued by the freezing temperatures and blowing snow outside, heated up and rose to its collective feet. Bridges’ dunk had given Michigan State a 70-56 lead against Rutgers with 8:11 left to play.
It’s a moment Ward had been waiting five weeks to experience.
“We were really excited to have him back,” Ward said.
Bridges hadn’t played in a game since Nov. 29 because of a high left ankle sprain. He played in just 17 minutes of the 93-65 win against Rutgers Wednesday night, but it was the most encouraging 17 minutes of the season for the Spartans.
The Spartans (11-5, 3-0 Big Ten) needed Bridges do everything for them when he last played at Duke. He will still be the focal point of the team now that he’s back, but no longer must he carry it for Michigan State to win.
The Spartans are a better team having Bridges watch from the bench the last five weeks. They’ll be even better now that he’s back.
“Since I left, I think the team really found ourselves and who we were and what we need to do to win,” Bridges said. “I really just wanted to go out and play hard, play good on defense. That’s all I wanted to do. I wasn’t focused on scoring. I was going to let the game come to me.”
Bridges averaged 16.6 points and 8.8 rebounds in 32.5 minutes through the first eight games of the season, the November gauntlet that included a bonanza of frequent-flyer miles and games against Top 20 teams Arizona, Kentucky, Baylor and Duke. The Spartans were 4-4 after those eight games, having lost to all of those Top 20 teams.
They went 7-1 in the next seven games without the lynchpin of the most heralded freshman class to come to East Lansing in Tom Izzo’s 22 seasons. The Spartans didn’t always look pretty — and they surprisingly lost at home to Northeastern in that stretch — but along the way they did find something.
“The last few weeks we really kind of came together and pulled together without him,” Spartans sophomore guard Matt McQuaid said. “He makes us better, but I think we did a good job without him. He’s really going to help us now. We really emphasized rebounding, gang rebounding because we weren’t as big. We’ve been emphasizing a lot more rebounding and our guards getting into the paint more, more paint touches with inside-out shots.”
McQuaid was the beneficiary of those inside-out shots Wednesday. He made 4 of 6 field goals, including 2 of 4 of his 3-point attempts, as he scored 12 points in his most efficient offensive game of the season. He also delivered a perfectly placed alley-oop pass to Bridges just 16 seconds after the two entered the game at the 15:56 mark of the first half.
Bridges slammed it home to signal his return.
“I just put it up there where only he could get it,” McQuaid said.
The play was called from the bench.
“I just thought it might be good for our players, it might be good for our fans, it might be good for us, and it definitely might be good for him,” Izzo said. “We set it up. We didn’t know if it would work. And it did. It was a great pass. I think that took the weight of the world off his shoulders too, a little bit. I was happy for him.”
Bridges finished the game with 6 points, 6 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 blocked shots. Michigan State would have been destined to lose any of its first eight games with Bridges having that kind of stat line. This is a different Michigan State team.
It’s a team that has found some grit. It has found a go-to inside presence in Ward. It has a good point guard combination in Winston and junior Tum Tum Nairn, and, when the night is right, capable outside shooters in McQuaid, Eron Harris and Alvin Ellis III. Harris celebrated Bridges’ return with a game-high 24 points.
Bridges’ forced Michigan State to become a better team. His return will only make it better.