NEWARK, N.J. – A big game in a big arena with big stars doing big things in front of a big crowd.
And it was newcomer Malik Hall who provided big plays at big moments, seizing the spotlight from two All-Americans in a back-and-forth shootout that felt more like an NCAA tournament than the third game of the season.
Hall’s layup with 25.8 seconds left and steal on Seton Hall’s Myles Powell with 5 seconds left capped a breakout game for the freshman, as No. 3 Michigan State held on for a 76-73 win over the 12th-ranked Pirates.
“For the most part, it was just me doing my job and doing what I was supposed to do,” said Hall, who finished 7 of 7 with all 17 of his points coming in the second half.
The Spartans (2-1) host Charleston Southern at 6:30 p.m. Monday (BTN). That game is part of the Maui Invitational. They could face Kansas in the finale there and already have played Kentucky, with Duke on tap in early December.
Yet MSU coach Tom Izzo, after the Spartans’ thrilling Gavitt Games debut at Prudential Arena, said Seton Hall (2-1) is right there with this year’s elite.
“That was a March game in November,” Izzo said. “I think college basketball needs games like that. Two teams fought. There were some great shots, there were some great plays. … We just beat, or would have lost to, I think a top-10 team in the country.”
The highly anticipated matchup between All-American guards Cassius Winston and Powell lived up to the hype, especially in the final 10 minutes as the Spartans and Pirates traded momentum-swinging baskets and defensive stops down the stretch.
Powell, who sprained his left ankle Saturday and was a game-time decision, played on pure adrenaline all night and ignited the raucous 14,051 crowd at Prudential Center from the moment he was introduced in the pregame lineup. He had a 24-point second-half outburst and finished with 37 on 12 of 27 shooting.
Winston battled foul trouble and poor shooting early, looking understandably fatigued from a week of raw emotions after his younger brother, Zachary, died on Saturday.
But when MSU needed him most, the senior lost himself in the game and found his zone, scoring 17 of his 21 points to finish 6 of 17 shooting. Over the final 9 minutes, Winston scored 13, including three 3-pointers in that stretch. Five of those points in the last minute-plus.
“Tough baskets,” junior forward Xavier Tillman said of Winston. “You could see he missed a couple shots, and he was like, ‘Man, I gotta hit some.’ Everybody was telling him, ‘Hey, you gotta keep shooting, keep shooting keep shooting.’
“He found his confidence at the end of the game. That was huge for us.”
But someone forgot to tell Hall to let the veterans have all the glory.
The 6-foot-7 forward – scoreless through his first two college games – had a five-point outburst with a 3-pointer and a tip-dunk in one sequence. He scored eight straight MSU points in a little over a 2-minute span, including a pair of 3s and another jam in transition off a Winston assist.
“The better he is for us,” sophomore Aaron Henry said of Hall, “the better we become.”
MSU needed everything Hall provided because Powell was unstoppable.
The 6-2 senior scored 13 of his points by halftime, hitting deep 3-pointers and knifing into the lane and drawing contact. But he reserved his biggest buckets for the second half, hitting four of his six 3-pointers in the final 4:23 – including two in a row, getting fouled on the second, that put Seton Hall up 71-66 with 2:40 to play.
“When we got down five,” Tillman said, “nobody put their heads down. We were like, ‘OK, we got this still.’”
The Spartans answered with Rocket Watts’ second 3-pointer of the game a little less than a minute later. The freshman guard grabbed a rebound at the other end and pushed the ball up the court, flipping it to Winston on the wing for a 3-pointer with 1:02 remaining to give MSU a one-point lead.
Then Hall made his most important basket of the night.
After a pair of Powell free throws allowed Seton Hall to reclaim the lead with 44.8 seconds to play, Winston got doubled atop the key. He split it with a bounce pass to Xavier Tillman on the left block. As the Pirates’ Romaro Gill slid over, Tillman flipped the ball across the lane to Hall, who contorted his body around the outstretched arms of the 7-2 Gill and banked in the go-ahead basket with 25.8 seconds left.
“It was all about going strong,” said Hall, who also had five rebounds. “When you know somebody’s bigger than you, a lot longer and stronger, you just gotta go up strong and do as much as you can to finish.”
After Tillman knocked the ball free from Seton Hall’s Sandro Mamukelashvili on a shot attempt, Winston missed a 1-and-1 with 13.3 seconds left. Powell got the ball on the fly after the missed free throw and drove down the right side. Henry and Tillman converged and jarred the ball free, into Hall’s hands.
“They were just letting us play. If you’re letting us play the whole game, you can’t look for a foul call the last 15 or 20 seconds,” Powell said of the refs. “With the ball in my hands and me being a leader and a captain, I could have made a better decision. But I’m not gonna blame it on the refs.”
Winston hit a pair of free throws with 3.4 ticks left, and Powell’s final heave caromed off the top of the backboard.
A rare miss on a night when Izzo said, “I don’t know if God could have stopped (Powell) on some of those shots.”
“It was a battle,” Izzo said. “Their kid (Powell) is one of the great players I’ve ever seen in college basketball.”