Not even a week into the season, we might already have the performance of the season.
Denzel Valentine put Michigan State on his back Tuesday night, turning in a triple-double — just the fourth Spartan ever to record a triple-double — as he led the Spartans to a 79-73 comeback win over fourth-ranked Kansas in the Champions Classic.
Michigan State trailed by as many as 13 in the first half and trailed by double digits in the second half, too, but with Valentine making one basket after another down the stretch, the Spartans erased that deficit and made an early season statement at the United Center.
“I want to win more of these early games,” head coach Tom Izzo said after the game. “We play in a lot of big games, and it’s time to start winning some big games and taking our program to yet another level. And that’s kind of what you’ve got to do to do that.”
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On a national-television stage with the college basketball world watching, Michigan State got one of those wins Tuesday night. Despite coming off the seventh Final Four appearance of the Izzo Era, the Spartans were the lowest-ranked team in the building. No. 2 Kentucky bested No. 5 Duke in the first contest of the evening. No. 4 Kansas was favored over No. 13 Michigan State.
But behind Valentine — who bulldozed his way into the Player of the Year conversation in this early stage of the season — the Spartans again looked like they could compete with and beat anybody.
“It was a big lift for everybody. I think some Kentucky fans were pulling for us tonight," Izzo said. "He lifted a lot of different people tonight, including me.”
Valentine finished with 29 points, 12 rebounds and 12 assists, joining Magic Johnson, Charlie Bell and Draymond Green as the lone Spartans to record a triple-double. Pretty good company.
Michigan State chipped Kansas’ lead down to three on multiple occasions in the second half, but the Jayhawks used a 10-2 run in the middle of the half to again stretch their lead to double figures at 61-50.
But that’s when Valentine took over. He assisted on a Bryn Forbes 3-pointer, then knocked down one of his own after a Kansas free throw. He laid one in before assisting on a Tum-Tum Nairn basket, then knocking down two free throws and another 3-pointer. That long ball gave the Spartans their first lead since the first half, putting Michigan State in front, 65-64, with less than five minutes to play.
After go-ahead free throws by Kansas, Michigan State freshman Matt McQuaid knocked down a triple to put the Spartans back in front. Jayhawks forward Perry Ellis tied the game with a bucket, but Valentine answered. Wayne Selden Jr. hit a 3, but Valentine answered. Then McQuaid hit a dagger of a 3 to extend the Michigan State lead to 75-71 with less than a minute left, and Valentine and freshman Deyonta Davis hit clutch free throws to seal the game.
“The last five minutes I was ready to pass out,” Valentine said. “Credit to (assistant coach) Mike Garland, he said, ‘You’re playing too well to lose the game.’ I was like, ‘Might as well just finish it off and get the win.’ Credit to my teammates, they helped me push through.”
Valentine was sensational, but he had some help. Matt Costello was a rebound away from a double-double with 10 points and nine boards. Forbes scored 13 points, and McQuaid had nine on a trio of made 3s, two coming in the most crucial moments.
“Matt McQuaid, golly! How about him knocking those big-time 3s down?” Valentine said. “He’s somebody that impressed me this whole summer and this whole offseason, and these first two games, he shows toughness, he always makes the right play.
“Who would come in as a freshman and knock two big, gigantic 3s like that down like that? In Chicago, in the United Center, on an NBA floor. I mean, I wouldn’t have done it my freshman year. I’m just happy he did it, and he showed that we have toughness and depth.”
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Even though it’s just the second game of the season, a win over such a quality opponent should go down as quite the resume-builder for Michigan State’s eventual NCAA tournament push.
The Spartans are just 2-0, but what an accomplishment on a Tuesday night in November.
Of course, Izzo, the football fan he is, was already thinking about Saturday.
“All in all, what a big win for us and for our program,” he said. “Kind of a start of a big week for Michigan State if you’re a Spartan fan. Football team going down to Ohio State, and hopefully we’re leading the way for a phenomenal week for the Spartans.”