Tom Izzo, Michigan State spoil Northeastern’s Winter Showdown weekend

Coach Tom Izzo congratulates Michigan State's Bryn Forbes on his hustle during the first half against Northeastern.

Bob DeChiara/Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

BOSTON –€“ The historic Matthews Arena had a festive look to it on Saturday. The green of the Michigan State fans blended in with the home red of the Northeastern crowd.

But something about the setting was off.

How exactly did Northeastern persuade Tom Izzo and his top-ranked Spartans to come to its building for their only true non-conference road game of the season?

The answer was the Winter Showdown, a two-day showcase created by Northeastern athletic director Peter Roby and his Michigan State counterpart Mark Hollis, which brought three Spartans teams to Boston for the weekend.

The Michigan State women’s basketball team defeated Northeastern 71-55 on Friday. That was the opening act for Saturday’s doubleheader: an afternoon game between the men’s basketball teams followed by a match-up between the men’s hockey programs that night. Northeastern thwarted the Spartans’ bid for a weekend hat trick, winning the hockey game 2-1.

"First and foremost, I want to thank Coach Izzo for agreeing to his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity here at Matthews Arena," Northeastern head coach Bill Coen said after the game. "I know it was a special, special day for our university, our men’s basketball program, our women’s basketball program, our hockey program, to really showcase athletics here and be a focal point, at least for a weekend. You don’t get that many opportunities to do that at our level."

Michigan State’s men, as the women did the night before, spoiled an otherwise perfect weekend for Northeastern, defeating the Huskies 78-58, matching the best start in school history at 12-0.

"This was another thing my AD did. Sometimes I question his stuff, but it gave us a chance to play a quality team on the road," Izzo said. "I give a lot of credit to Bill. I liked his team on film. Northeastern has a good basketball team. They’re gonna be a team that gets into the tournament, in my humble opinion. It was great to play in front of a raucous crowd.

"I did not know about this one as much, but it’s a unique place. It’s a Jenison Field House [the Spartans’ former campus home] minimized a bit, and that’s pretty cool to look up in the rafters and see Reggie Lewis and the Bruins and the Celtics. That’s what Boston is all about. I enjoyed that."

Michigan State playing a road game at a non-Power 5 school isn’t all that crazy when you consider that this is the same program that played in the first game on a Navy aircraft carrier, a brief trend that began in 2011. But this game on the schedule still raised a few eyebrows, as Northeastern’s home gym, while historic, has been overshadowed in a pro sports town.

Matthews Arena opened in 1910, making it two years older than Fenway Park. It’s the location of the first game in Boston Celtics franchise history. It also played home to the Boston Bruins for several seasons and hosted political rallies and boxing matches.

In the early going, it looked like Matthews Arena would be the site of a major upset, as the Huskies controlled the tempo and held a five-point lead with 11 minutes remaining in the first half. However, Michigan State would settle in midway through the first half. The Spartans got a boost from the season debut of junior forward Gavin Schilling and were energized by the defensive play of Bryn Forbes, forcing a turnover by diving on the floor, which earned a congratulatory shove from his coach. The Spartans would outscore the Huskies 24-10 and take a nine-point lead into halftime.

Michigan State would hold a double-digit lead for the final 16:30 of regulation.

Denzel Valentine led the Spartans with 17 points, five rebounds and six assists. Zach Stahl had a game-high 18 points for the Huskies to go along with his seven boards.

The Spartans exited the arena as they entered: unbeaten and as the nation’s top team. But what they left was another memorable event inside the 105-year-old building.

"Wasn’t it great?" Coen said. "It was great to see Matthews like that.

"That was one of the draws for Coach Izzo and his program. They were coming to a historic building. And you’re creating a memory and an event. This is going to go on the long list of Matthews’ accomplishments. When you see its been home to presidents, some of the best boxing matches and the Celtics and the Bruins and on and on and on. I think today will be just another day they will mark in time and remember that the No. 1 team in the country came here and Matthews sparkled."