Michigan State scored on four straight possessions midway through the first half: a Nick Ward layup followed by an Alvin Ellis III jumper followed by 3-pointers from Cassius Winston and Josh Langford.

Suddenly the Spartans’ 8-point lead ballooned to 17 points. The rout appeared to be on in East Lansing.

Until Northwestern put together a run of its own.

The Wildcats closed out the first half and cut into the lead to get within 7. They even got as close as 4 in the second half. But they didn’t get any closer.

Michigan State’s Cassius Winston controlled the second half and helped close out for the Spartans to defend theirs home-court advantage down the stretch to come away with a 61-52 win over Northwestern.

Here are three main takeaways from the game:

1. Northwestern missed a big opportunity to build its NCAA tournament résumé.

Look, it’s December. We are far from March. But anything a team can do to bolster its NCAA tournament credentials during the season and impress the selection committee shouldn’t be wasted. This one kind of felt like it was.

Miles Bridges, Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter all sat on the sidelines for the Spartans. There were opportunities available to close the gap at several points in the game. But Northwestern still wasn’t able to exploit those key absences to its advantage.

It’s unfair to point to this one game specifically and say this one could make or break their tournament hopes. That would be flat-out wrong. But the Big Ten Conference is nothing to scoff at. From top to bottom, the league is loaded with very good teams. So when you have the chance to steal a win — on the road, no less — it stings a bit to come up short.

2. The Wildcats’ inexperience opened opportunities for the veteran Spartans.

The Wildcats dug such a huge hole early in the game, they made it nearly impossible for them to make any real comeback. Just as soon as they would stifle the Spartans defensively, they themselves would go ice-cold from the floor. The Wildcats seemed to rush the offense early on. It was out of sorts. It was isolation ball. It was the opposite of the team ball that makes Northwestern so fun to watch on offense as you can see here:

It was a 7-point game at the half, and the final margin was 8. So the second half was much better for Northwestern as shots finally began to drop. The team settled in and lost the edge of its nerves. But it was too little too late for a veteran Michigan State team which was ready to pounce on any slip-ups down the stretch. The Spartans have been there before. They’ve won tight games and have the muscle memory of what it’s like. That goes a long ways in these conference matchups that can be decided on a few possessions.

3. Michigan State’s 2-0 Big Ten record is part of Tom Izzo’s coaching wizardry.

As easily as the Spartans are undefeated in conference play, they could just as easily be 0-2 and left scratching their heads and thinking about what’s next.

The Spartans pulled out an impressive overtime win on the road to open conference play over Minnesota, and this win over Northwestern is an impressive one no matter the location. Without Miles Bridges, who sat out with an ankle injury, Michigan State is still finding ways to piece together wins. It’s a hall of fame coach doing what a hall of fame coach does: getting the most out of his players, injuries or not.

Bridges is expected to be back soon. The 6-foot-7 frosh was the team’s leading scorer before suffering an ankle injury. And he could be back in the mix within the next few games. Considering Michigan State’s relative success with him on the bench, it could be a huge sign that the Spartans could be ready to take the next step toward marching back to the NCAA tournament and keeping their streak of 19 straight appearances alive.

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