The third-ranked Spartans were playing their sixth game in 13 days and facing Rutgers in their first true road game of the season. It resulted in a sluggish performance from start to finish, but thanks to some decent defense and plenty of missed shots from the home team, Michigan State came away with a 62-52 victory.
"That game was no surprise to me, to be honest, for a couple of good reasons," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "No. 1, I was concerned about us being a little sluggish, but more importantly I was concerned about how (Rutgers) played. I said it was gonna be a war and some said it was an old-fashioned Big Ten game.
"So, we found a way to win and I guess that's what good teams do, they find a way to win even when they don't play good."
The small but raucous crowd was in the game the entire way as the Scarlet Knights were on the verge of an upset, but Michigan State (8-1, 2-0 Big Ten) defended well enough to come away with the victory as Rutgers shot just 25.8 percent (17-for-66).
Miles Bridges scored 21 for the Spartans while Joshua Langford scored 15 and Jaren Jackson Jr. added 11 points and eight blocks, matching a school record. Sophomore Nick Ward, who scored 22 on Sunday, sat for nearly the entire second half.
"We were really stagnant on offense and the defense kind of picked us up in the second half and we started making plays, getting out in transition," Izzo said. "I could see some guys weren't focused, but I thought we'd come through in the beginning of the first half because I'm not used to us coming out like that. I don't expect to come out like that anymore."
Three players scored in double figures for Rutgers (6-3, 0-2), which lost its third straight. Deshawn Freeman scored 13 while Geo Baker and Eugene Omoruyi added 11 points each for the Scarlet Knights.
"I think we played the best team in the country," Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell said. "It came down to a few possessions and got to credit Michigan State. They made two big huge threes ... we just came up a little short but proud of our guys, proud of our effort. We didn't play great either and that's a positive for us. We played the best team in the country and I think we got a lot more in the tank. We'll continue to grow."
After a sloppy first half, the upset bid was on throughout the second half.
A layup from Omoruyi gave Rutgers a 35-34 lead with 13:34 to play and had the home crowd on its feet. Michigan State answered with a jumper from Matt McQuaid and a drive and layup from Jackson to go up 38-35 with 12:31 left in the game.
Jackson then followed with a put-back dunk and Langford buried a jumper from the wing to extend the Spartans' lead to 42-35. Rutgers kept fighting, however, and trimmed the Michigan State advantage to 45-43, but the Spartans got a jump-hook and a pair of free throws from Jackson to extend the lead to 49-43. That lead was pushed to 55-46 on a Jackson dunk.
Michigan State eventually went up 58-48 on a 3-pointer from Cassius Winston with 1:24 that essentially put the game away.
"It was more of a grind for us," Langford said. "We knew it would be a grind, we knew Rutgers would be a physical team and a team we'd have to grind it out. We played terrible really, especially me, but we came out and got the win."
The first half ugly for Michigan State as it matched its season-low for points in the first half with 26 while shooting 10-for-25, the fewest shot attempts in a half this season.
Rutgers took full advantage of Michigan State's struggles, scoring the first eight points of the game to get the home crowd believing an upset could be in the works. Even after the Spartans responded with an 11-0 run — eight straight points from Bridges on a mid-range jumper and two straight 3-pointers — the Scarlet Knights didn't go away.
Rutgers responded with an 11-2 run to take a 25-23 lead after a pull-up jumper from Baker with a little more than a minute to play in the half. Langford converted a three-point play before Bridges was called for a foul off the ball with 6.5 seconds to play.
Mike Williams split a pair of free throws and Michigan State dodged trouble when it gave up an offensive rebound, sending the teams to the locker room tied at 26.
"Everything has been going pretty smooth for us," Izzo said. "You guys been kissing our butts, the fans have been kissing them and the coaches haven't, but that's what you get. I think we thought we'd just come in and win because we've been beating teams by 20 and we got outplayed a lot of that game.
"I can't say it's good for us because it didn't feel good on the bench, but it's good for us that we have to realize we have to do things differently. We're not just over-talenting people. We're not Kentucky or Duke. We have good players that have to play well for us to win."