EAST LANSING, Mich. — The North Carolina State men's basketball team knew the odds were stacked against them in Wednesday's Big Ten/ACC Challenge game at Michigan State since the Wolfpack were playing their fourth game away from home in the last seven days and facing their second consecutive ranked opponent.
The odds proved to be even higher as a fresher and deeper Spartans team jumped out to an early lead and never looked back in defeating the Wolfpack 81-58.
Michigan State, which entered the game ranked No. 10 in the nation, jumped out to an early 22-7 lead, coming at the Wolfpack in waves.
"We played against a very good ball club," said North Carolina State coach Sidney Lowe. "They (Michigan State) were very active and aggressive. They ran the floor well on us. They were making hard cuts and setting good screens and they shot the ball well. We ran into a team who was clicking tonight, and they are certainly capable of doing that. We got so far behind, we couldn't make shots early in the ball game and they ran it back at us."
Michigan State connected on 19 of 37 shots (51.4 percent) during the first half. The Wolfpack, on the other hand, hit only 5 of 23 shots (21.7 percent). That disparity in shooting led to Michigan State taking a 41-19 lead into halftime.
Part of the slow start for the Wolfpack had to be contributed to the four road games the Wolfpack have played in the last seven days. After playing three games in Orlando where NC State won the Old Spice Classic, the Wolfpack had to turn around and fly North to East Lansing to play a nationally-ranked Spartan team playing on its home floor.
"I think that is possible," Lowe said, when asked about a possible hangover, "but I don't like taking away from our opponents. They did what they were supposed to do. I think that they saw that we were tired and then they took it to us, but we don't want to make any excuses. You have to give them the credit they deserve. I do think that our guys tried as hard as they could. They gave what they had and what we had just wasn't enough."
Trailing by 22 points at halftime, it would've been easy for the Wolfpack to go through the motions in the second half. Instead, State battled with the Spartans on even terms in the second half with Michigan State winning the second half by a 40-39 margin.
Freshman J.J. Hickson continued his strong play in the early going of the season. Hickson, who came into the game averaging 18.0 points and 8.0 rebounds, recorded a double-double against a MSU front line that sent wave after wave of fresh big men against him. Hickson finished the game with 21 points on 7-of-11 shooting from the floor. Hickson also pulled down 10 rebounds and blocked four shots.
"Coach told us to stay strong at halftime," Hickson said. "He said to keep working and trying to cut it down and cut it down. They (Michigan State) took us out of our element early. They were just confident and were hitting their shots. It was tough, they couldn't miss."
Coming into the game, the Wolfpack were concerned about the physical style of play of Michigan State. MSU won the battle on the boards against NC State 42-31. The Spartans also pulled down 14 offensive rebounds to 11 for the Wolfpack.
"They did exactly what we though they would do," Lowe said. "I just don't think we had the energy to match it. Again, I have to say this without taking anything away from them, they were going to do it anyway. That's how they play. They play aggressive and physical."
Hickson, however, downplayed Michigan State's physical play
"College basketball is physical period," Hickson said. "It's not just the team. They didn't do nothing different from any other team as far as being physical."
North Carolina State managed to cut the deficit to 20 points with five minutes remaining in the game thanks to an 11-0 run. Three-point shots from point guard Farnold Degand and Dennis Horner keyed the run, which also included back-to-back buckets from Hickson.
Degand finished the game with 11 points and added four assists in 31 minutes of play.
Horner, who played 22 minutes and scored six points against South Carolina at the Old Spice Classic, turned in another solid game off the bench. Horner played 27 minutes against the Spartans and finished with a season-high nine points along with six rebounds.
Although Michigan State defeated the Wolfpack by 23 points, Spartan coach Tom Izzo was quick to point out that his Spartans were playing a tired team. The fatigue factor also played into Michigan State's game plan.
"In fairness to North Carolina State I thought they got tired," Izzo said. "They played three games and then off two days and then traveled so I know what that's like too so I don't think we should get overly excited yet. North Carolina State is a very good basketball team, this will be a very good win for us, but they are a better basketball team then they played tonight too and a lot of it was fatigue."