Michigan State's sophomore star also soared over everyone on a pivotal play, scoring two of his 29 points on a tip-in dunk to help the third-seeded Spartans beat Bucknell 82-78 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday night.
"He was a tough matchup for us," Thomas acknowledged.
Thomas was, too, for the Big Ten regular season champions. He fouled out on a technical with 6:06 left and finished with 27 points. The 6-foot-7 senior forward put on a show in the first half, scoring 20 points and making all three of his shots beyond the 3-point arc to keep the Bison close.
"He's a great player, but it was good for us that he fouled out," Bridges said.
The Spartans (30-4) made the most of playing about 75 miles from campus in a packed arena with green-and-white clad fans in the stands. They roared when Bridges dunked, as he did once on a spectacular slam off an offensive rebound midway through the second half, and jeered when replays showed a foul called against their team.
"It's tough because we were hoping for a higher seed, but we ended up playing a team that's arguably Top 5 in the country on what's almost their home floor," Bucknell guard Kimbal Mackenzie said.
With a similar advantage, Michigan State will play Syracuse (22-13) on Sunday in the second round.
Leading by 15 points with 2 minutes left, Michigan State won by a slim margin after Bucknell (25-10) made a late flurry of long-range shots.
"I thought our guys came out, competed," Bison coach Nathan Davis said. "Never backed down. Never stopped playing."
The Spartans didn't start rusty, like some Big Ten teams after a long layoff, but found out quickly Thomas was as good if not better than they thought.
Thomas made a 3-pointer to put the Patriot League champions ahead 28-27 with 5:24 left in the first half. Joshua Langford, who scored 15 of his 22 points in the first half, gave Michigan State the lead on the ensuing possession and it never lost it.
The Spartans, though, did have to make enough free throws in the final seconds to hold off a charge from the 3-point making Bison.
"My head is fine," Ward said. "I was teary-eyed because my nose hit the ground."
Nana Foulland scored 20 and Makenzie added 10 points for the Bison.
Bucknell: Thomas showed NBA scouts he can create his own shot against major college players and perhaps gave recruits a glimpse of how they can be featured by the Bison.
"He can shoot the 3s. You saw the range," Davis said. "He can put the ball on the floor and finish. He draws fouls."
Michigan State: The Spartans simply wanted to survive after a long layoff and they did, but they will need to play a more complete game to continue playing beyond Sunday.
"This team still has a ways to go," Hall of Fame coach Tom Izzo said.
GETTING HIS DUE
Langford nearly doubled his scoring average, coming off three straight games in which he scored five or fewer points. He was held to single digits in six of the previous seven games. As Langford showed by matching his career high with 23 points in a win over North Carolina in November, the sophomore shooting guard is capable of more.
"He was due for this type of game," Winston said. "The amount of time he puts in the gym, his shot is going to fall. We knew it was coming."
Thomas fouled out for complaining after a call wasn't made when he thought Foulland was fouled.
"I was just backpedaling and I said, `What are you watching?' from about like half court," Thomas said. "He was still on the baseline. I didn't think he was looking at me, but apparently he heard me and didn't like it. I shouldn't have said it, but I mean, I didn't agree with the call. At least warn me or something."
A technical was called less than 30 seconds later on Langford.
"I can't believe Josh Langford got a technical," Izzo said. "He hasn't said a word since he's been on campus."
Michigan State is trying to advance from the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament for the first time in three years and will have to get past Syracuse and coach Jim Boeheim, whose most Final Four appearance came two years ago.
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