NEWARK — In the first five halves of his college basketball career, Malik Hall played 25 total minutes and took three shots, making exactly zero of them and going scoreless.
Suffice to say, half No. 6 went just a bit better.
Hall scored all 17 of his points, made all seven of his shots and scored the eventual game-winner, a bucket over Romaro Gill, Seton Hall’s 7-foot shot-blocking maven, before corralling a pair of defensive rebounds to help seal a 76-73 win for No. 3 Michigan State over No. 14 Seton Hall.
In a game that was billed as Cassius Winston vs. Myles Powell, it was Hall that made the plays his team needed to win.
Not bad, freshman.
“It was crazy to see him breakout like that,” junior big man Xavier Tillman said after the game. “To be honest, he’s been struggling the last couple weeks. It’s just been his confidence.”
Confidence was not an issue for Hall in the second half on Thursday night. He checked in at the 15:49 mark of the second half. On his second possession in the game, he buried a three off of a Cassius Winston assist. On the ensuing possession, Hall scored off of an offensive rebound. Two minutes later, he buried another three. After Seton Hall retook the lead 90 seconds left, Hall threw down a dunk in transition and then buried his third three of the half with 9:49 left to tie the game, capping off a five-minute stretch where he scored 13 of Sparty’s 15 points.
“After he hit that first one, he was good,” Tillman said. “You could just tell. he was energetic, positive. The way he handled himself after you could tell.”
And boy, did Michigan State need the lift.
The last ten days have not been easy to deal with in East Lansing.
Forget the fact that they lost their season-opener to Kentucky – who subsequently lost at home to Evansville – on the biggest stage the sport has to offer in November, the program is only five days removed from a tragedy that rocked their world; Winston’s younger brother Zachary died on Saturday night when he was struck by a train. The team wore patches on their jersey on Thursday night that read “Smoothie,” which was Zachary Winston’s nickname.
Winston did not play well in the first 20 minutes, scoring just four of his 21 points and picking up a pair of fouls. Tillman did not play well on the offensive end for most of the night. Aaron Henry rolled his ankle midway through the first half. It was glaringly obvious that the Spartans were waiting for their National Player of the Year candidate to get it going, and that wasn’t likely with Seton Hall draping two defenders on him at every conceivable opportunity.
That’s when Hall woke up.
“For a long time, I was hearing it,” Hall said with a laugh after the game. “There was a couple, ‘Why didn’t you shoot that?’ [from my teammates]. I said, ‘it’ll come when it’s ready.’
“Coach called a couple of our role replace actions and for the most part they weren’t coming gout so I kept shooting.”
And that right there is what makes Hall’s performance so important.
This win is going to look really nice in three months. It will help to lift the mood of the people within the program. It was a test of the, ahem, intestinal fortitude of some of the younger guys on this Spartan roster, guys that have not necessarily been asked to play minutes like this in game likes this.
“That was a March game in November,” Izzo said.
But it’s also just one win. It’s probably not going to end up having too much impact come Selection Sunday. Maybe it’s the tiebreaker that lets them get a No. 1 seed instead of a No. 2 seed.
Where this may actually impact Michigan State’s season is that it may answer the questions we have about what they are going to be doing at the four spot. As it stands, Michigan State is starting Thomas Kithier in that role, and he’s been fine. He was averaging 8.5 points. He his a three against Seton Hall. He’s not going to win Michigan State any games, but he’s not going to lose them any games, either. Marcus Bingham oozes potential and was averaging 10.0 points, 6.0 boards and 2.0 blocks entering this game, but he’s still figuring things out.
What the Spartans are missing is a guy in the Kenny Goins role, someone that can space the floor, that can rebound the ball, that can guard bigs and guard smalls.
He can do all of that. He has the size. He obviously has the shooting ability. At his core, he’s probably more of a natural guard than a natural big, but he can do a little bit of everything.
“He’s a really talented kid,” assistant coach Dane Fife said, adding that the difference between Hall being the guy he was in the second half tonight and the guy he was for the first five halves of his season was really not all that much. Part of it is confidence. Part of it is the fundamentals. Part of it is something as simple as being in the right spot on the floor, even if it’s only a couple feet in a different direction.
And on Thursday, he finally did all of that.
“When he shoots like that, and they’re doing all that roll and replace, and you have to deal with Tillman down low, and you have Gabe Brown in the corner and Aaron Henry in the corner, then all of a sudden you have to start switching pick and rolls and you have a four-man on Cassius Winston,” Kevin Willard said. “Good luck with that.”
“If they want to double team Cash, we gotta make them pay for it,” Tillman said.
That’s precisely what Hall did.
“When I got in the locker and every was jumping around and happy, and I sat down, like, ‘dang, I just did that,'” Hall said. “You dream about those moments.”