ATLANTA — With 16 seconds left, MSU guard Keith Appling drove past Kansas big man Jeff Withey and finished with a dazzling left handed lay-up to give the No. 21 Michigan State Spartans a 67-64 victory over the No. 7 Kansas Jayhawks.
Appling finished the game with a game-high 19 points, eight of which came in the final seven minutes of the second half.
Freshman Gary Harris put on an offensive clinic for the Spartans as he went 7-of-12 from the field for 18 points, and showed that he can put the ball in the bucket in more ways than one.
Harris scored two back-to-back buckets with just over four minutes to play that cut the Kansas lead to 59-58 and jump started an 8-0 run by the Spartans.
Kansas guard Elijah Johnson buried two free throws after a Harris foul to end the Spartans 8-0 run and cut the MSU lead to 62-61 with 1:47 left in the game.
On the next possession, Appling came off a pick and drilled a three-pointer to give MSU a 65-61 lead with 1:38 left. The junior point guard finished the game shooting 3-of-3 from deep, and those that follow the program closely know how huge that this shooting performance is for him.
Appling told isportsweb.com that he made 500 three-pointers a day during the summer, and with a three-point shooting percentage of nearly 63 percent in two games, it’s evident that hard work pays off.
While MSU sophomore back-up point guard Travis Trice sat out of today’s game with concussion symptoms, many were watching 6-5 freshman guard Denzel Valentine closely. The freshman continued to show that he is the best passer on the team with some eye-popping passes into the post, and he even improved his defense tremendously from the first game.
Still, the Spartans are struggling to not turn the ball over, as they’ve had two games of 15 turnovers this season, many of which are unforced.
The Kansas Jayhawks did a good job of doubling in the post, and it caused a total of nine turnovers from the MSU big men. Derrick Nix led the Spartans in turnovers with four, and Adreian Payne added three.
Both Nix and Payne have struggled thus far in the season, and if the Spartans plan on having success come March they need these two to play smarter.
Nix looked lost at times on offense whether it was handling the ball at the top of the key or not knowing where to pass when the double team came. Payne has been the Spartans best interior defender in their first two games, but only played 17 minutes tonight due to foul trouble.
This win was a victory that the Spartans needed, badly. For years, Tom Izzo has tested his team with early season match ups against college basketball’s elite on the biggest of stages, and for the most part they haven’t prevailed. In 2008, the Spartans lost big to North Carolina, but were able to beat a very good Texas team in Houston. In ’09, they lost to North Carolina, Florida, and Texas. 2010, they lost to UConn, Syracuse, Duke, and Texas. Last year, they fell to North Carolina and Duke.
Sorry to bring up the past, but we need to dwell on it a little to realize how important this victory could potentially be. This Michigan State team is young, and a victory against a No. 7 Kansas team after a dog fight against a good UConn team in Germany four days earlier shows the character that this team possesses.
As the clock was winding down it was clear that the MSU players were getting very excited and jumping around, as they should be, but if you looked at Appling you would’ve seen him give his teammates a calm down signal as if he was saying, “Act like you belong here.” That act of leadership by Appling continues to show that he put in a lot of work this summer, and not just on the court, but as a leader.
Izzo has this team going in the right direction early, which is important. Games like this are tremendous confidence boosters, and with a victory of this magnitude on a national scale this early in the season, the future is looking very bright for a young Michigan State basketball team.