Sprained ankles and soaring confidence: MSU hopes to carry gritty performance into NCAA tournament

If Michigan State found themselves down to seven points to Purdue at halftime in the final two weeks of the regular season, you could’ve penned the Spartans in for a disappearance down the stretch and an embarrassing double-digit loss.

It happened against Iowa, Michigan and Ohio State in the final two weeks of the regular season. And as Purdue and MSU returned to the locker room for mid-game adjustments, the collective feeling like the game could get ugly for the Spartans hung in the air in Gainbridge Arena.

But that was far from the case for Michigan State, who rediscovered its gritty identity in its three-game stint in the Big Ten Tournament. Instead of wilting, Michigan State rolled up its sleeves and punched back at the bigger and stronger Boilermakers, taking them to the wire for a 75-70 defeat in the tournament semifinals.

Michigan State stood with its back against the wall and fought back, something this team has not shown much of during the final stretch of the regular season. And at the center of the performance was sophomore point guard AJ Hoggard, who put up 17 points and 10 assists in the defeat on one good ankle.

Hoggard, desperate to provide the team with a storybook ending, grit his teeth and played a team-high 34 minutes after spraining his left ankle in his first five seconds of action. He could have decided to rest the injury but played through the pain to give MSU a chance to win after losing fellow junior point guard Tyson Walker to the same injury in the opening moments of the game.

“I wanted this so bad for our seniors but we didn’t get it done tonight, so we’ve just kind of got to get back and get another shot at March,” Hoggard said.

In a matter of just 14 seconds of game time, MSU lost its offensive firepower when Walker and Hoggard were escorted to the locker room to treat ankle injuries sustained between the 17:35 and 17:21 mark in the first half.

Walker went down after stepping on another player’s foot in transition and laid on the ground for about 30 seconds before hobbling to the MSU bench. Hoggard replaced him and immediately turned his ankle in the same way, leaving MSU without a point guard for a three-minute stretch.

“To have two ankle injuries in 20 seconds to my two point guards was a tough situation,” MSU Head Coach Tom Izzo said.

With a slight limp, Hoggard returned to the court at the 15:38 mark after receiving treatment in the locker room. His presence and ability to dictate the offense generated better possessions for MSU but points were still too hard to come by against Purdue’s fundamentally sound half-court defense.

Walker tried to return to the game with 9:22 left until halftime, but the pain in his ankle was too much to play through. After 52 seconds, Walker motioned towards the bench for a substitution and immediately walked to the MSU locker room with the trainer. He returned to MSU’s bench a few minutes later with a resigned look on his face and took a seat next to assistant coach Mark Montgomery.

Walker was ruled out of the game with a sprained ankle and was left to look on from the sideline as Hoggard assumed the full weight of offensive orchestrating duties on his shoulders. Hoggard proceeded to play 28 of the final 29 minutes, only taking a 57-second break in the final three minutes of the first half to catch his breath.

In the second half, Hoggard never left the floor. On partially torn tendons working desperately to hold his left ankle intact, he led MSU’s effort to try to overcome the seven-point halftime deficit. And as MSU inched closer and closer thanks to his play, the pain in Hoggard’s foundation started to subside and disappeared until he was asked about it afterward.

“I’m still a little hurt, but one of us had to play and I wasn’t going to let my seniors down like that,” Hoggard said. “So I kind of put my mind to it and forgot that I was hurt until you just said something about it.”

MSU’s comeback started with Hoggard’s aggression off the dribble. On the first two possessions of the half, Hoggard got past Purdue senior guard Eric Hunter Jr. On straight-line drives and muscled home two layups through fouls for back-to-back and-one opportunities in the first two minutes of the second half to pull MSU within six.

Hoggard stood tall on his wounded leg and continued to match his own effort with the same action each time down the court. At the start of nearly every MSU possession, Hoggard found himself at the top of the key with the ball in hand, ready to get the offense in motion with a high screen from one of the MSU bigs. Purdue’s bigs continued with its strict drop-only screen coverage, which laid out a red carpet for the MSU point guard to waltz into the paint and create havoc.

With his soles planted in the painted area, Hoggard started to perform surgery on the Purdue defense that looked impenetrable in the first half. He used his wide body and start-and-stop ability to create space to get up shots over Purdue’s towering centers. When he wasn’t taking the shot himself, Hoggard whipped the ball out as fast as possible to an MSU shooter, who either hoisted the shot or drove into the paint against a recovering defender.

The simple recipe for MSU’s offense proved to be effective. MSU scored 50 points and shot 53.8% (21-39) in the second half and was able to whittle Purdue’s once 13-point lead all the way down to point with 5:45 remaining.

The comeback, however, was fruitless. After MSU cut it to 57-56 with 5:45 left, the Boilermakers answered with a 9-0 run in 90 seconds to extend the lead back to 10 and sink a dagger into MSU’s tournament hopes.

But Hoggard’s effort did not stop until the final horn sounded. He continued to relentlessly attack to try and drag MSU to the Big Ten tournament finals but the effort fell just short of giving MSU a preferred ending to its wild weekend.

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“I was very pleased with AJ, but I didn’t notice — you don’t just shazam, you go from here to here,” Izzo said. “He’s making progress, I think he learned something… It’s 21 days, straight days to change behavior, so one day doesn’t change it.”

The progress needs to turn into consistency fast for the Spartans, however. The next loss will end the season for good and Hoggard might be the only option MSU has at point guard. While Purdue pulled away, Walker was glued to his seat next to Montgomery with a taped-up ankle, helpless to the situation.

Hoggard mitigated the impact of Walker’s absence, but it still loomed largely in the background of the defeat. Michigan State could not generate a clean shot without Hoggard’s magic and looked like a team desperately missing the speed and shotmaking Walker provides.

Izzo said after the game he is unsure of the incision of Walker’s sprain but could confirm that it was not broken.

Michigan State now heads back to East Lansing with a new level of confidence after the run and an equal amount of anxiety about Walker’s status. The hopes of a deep run in the NCAA tournament could rest on the recovery of tendons in Walker’s left ankle and if Hoggard and the team can duplicate the gritty performance.

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