Michigan State holds off Florida for 63-59 victory
GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Tom Izzo called Michigan State’s last six games “one of the more incredible stretches” of his coaching career.
He believes no one — “not even my mother” — would have expected the 10th-ranked Spartans to go 5-1 in those games, with the lone loss coming at Louisville in overtime.
Michigan State closed the daunting stretch in dramatic fashion, with Kyle Ahrens scoring seven consecutive points — including a two-handed jam with 8.7 seconds remaining — to lift Michigan State to a 63-59 victory at Florida on Saturday.
“I’m just proud of my guys for these six games,” said Izzo, whose team played six games in 17 days with four of them away from home. “This was one of the more incredible stretches in my career as far as number of games against good people on the road, in a short period of time.
“I’m going to take the win and get out of here and I’m going to realize that we did not play great and blame me some and give Florida credit for the other.”
Ahrens, who missed all of last season with a foot injury, barely beat the shot clock with his baseline slam. He gave the Spartans (8-2) their final points in a game Florida (5-4) made close thanks mostly to freshman Andrew Nembhard.
The Gators trimmed a 12-point deficit to 56-53 on KeVaughn Allen’s 3-pointer with 3:24 to play, but Ahrens answered from the corner on the other end. He added a reverse layup on the Spartans’ next possession.
Florida forced a missed shot and a turnover, getting a chance to tie late. But Allen missed an off-balanced shot at the rim with 43 seconds to play. Ahrens delivered the knockout blow on the other end, driving the baseline and stuffing one home.
“He’s waited a long time to have a day like this,” Izzo said. “It seems like it’s been forever, so I take my hat off to him.”
Xavier Tillman led the Spartans (8-2) with 14 points and nine rebounds off the bench. Joshua Langford and Nick Ward added 13 points apiece for Michigan State, which finished with a season low in points.
Tillman and Ward combined to make 12 of 15 shots, most of them in the paint.
Michigan State shot 51 percent, but had 15 turnovers and allowed Florida to grab 16 offensive rebounds.
“We did some critically dumb things and they made some very good plays,” Izzo said.
Nembhard and Allen led the Gators with 13 each. Nembhard made four of Florida’s last seven baskets and had assists on two others.
“We’ve got to get to where our best scorers consistently play with aggressiveness and confidence,” said Gators coach Mike White, whose team has lost three games by six points or fewer. “If we don’t, we’re going to continue to be riding the wave offensively of being good and not so good. Flip a coin.”
Michigan State: The Spartans answered every Florida run. The Gators cut the lead to three late in the first half, but Cassius Winston responded with a floater in the lane. Florida got it to four or fewer seven times in the second half, and Michigan State countered each time — with Ahrens’ three baskets proving to be the biggest.
Florida: White admittedly has a team built to shoot 3-pointers, and the Gators are tough to beat when they make them. But they missed 18 of 24 against the Spartans, getting few open looks.
About a dozen Florida football players stopped by the O’Connell Center on their way to bowl practice and caught the final few minutes. They stood in an aisle and cheered .
Michigan State’s visit completed a home-and-home series that opened in East Lansing three years ago. The return trip was pushed back because of renovations to the O’Connell Center in 2016 and then due to the Big Ten’s conference scheduling changes last year.
Michigan State takes a break before beginning a four-game homestand against Green Bay on Dec. 16.
Florida gets a short layoff for final exams before hosting Mercer on Dec. 18.