With less than 4:30 to go in the game and Michigan State leading Illinois by a score of 65-62, the Spartans knew what they had to do. They had to get the ball in the hands of their closer: Keith Appling.
Appling, a junior guard from Detroit, has been the go to player for the Spartans down the stretch for several games this season. On many occasions throughout the year, he has stepped up late in crunch time and delivered, putting the team on his back en route to a plethera of Spartan victories.
But this game was a somewhat unique situation for Appling. Coming off one of his worst games of the year against Indiana, where he struggled with foul trouble all night and finished with just three points in 19 minutes, would he be able to come back in this one and play at the same type of level?
The answer to the question we would go on to find out was yes. On a night where much of the theme of the game would be centered around coming back, Appling would do the same.
At the half, Michigan State trailed the Fighting Illini 27-37, their largest halftime deficit of the season. Having turned the ball over nine times compared to Illinois’ one, they weren’t looking good out there at all.
However, after both teams were sent to the locker rooms for halftime, Michigan State came out in the second half a new team. Suddenly scrappy and more tenacious on the defensive side of the ball, Michigan State opened up the half with a 14-0 run to go ahead by four, 41-37.
From this point, Michigan State would go on to build an eight point lead, 51-43, their largest of the night. But it wouldn’t stay like that for long as Illinois caught right back up and the game was played very close right up until the final buzzer.
And that takes us right back to the point with less than 4:30 to go in the game. With Michigan State missing both freshman guard Gary Harris to back spasms and sophomore guard Travis Trice to another blow to the head, Michigan State was looking for someone to turn to, someone who had the capibility to put the team on his back and close out this game.
Moments later, junior big man Adreian Payne found that guy, as he swung a pass over to Appling who stepped up and hit a huge three pointer to put the Spartans up by six, 68-62.
A few minutes later, his clutch play continued as he split a couple of Illini defenders, drew the defense over, before lobbing a pass up to Branden Dawson, who threw down a sick alley oop to put the Spartans up 72-67 with 1:45 to play.
And lastly, on the very next possession, Appling spun through the lane and connected on an acrobatic left hand layup, this time putting the Spartans on top 74-68 with 45 seconds to play. After this, the Spartans shot some free throws down the stretch to take the game 80-75, thanks to the clutch series of plays put together by Appling towards the end of the game.
“My teammates have the most trust within me so whenever the game is close down the stretch, they try to get the ball in my hands and I try to make something happen for myself or for my teammates,” Appling said.”It’s crunch time. You should always be motivated. That’s winning time. I feel like that’s the part of the game where I focus in the most.”
And it is no doubt that he was the absolute player of this game. Appling had possibly the best game of his career, finishing with 24 points, 8 rebounds, 7 assists, doing so in 38 minutes of work.
But he didn’t do it all alone. Michigan State received a big boost in this one from freshman Denzel Valentine, who, after both Harris and Trice went out with injuries, came into the game and played as well as he has all season, finishing the game with a career high 14 points.
“I feel like Denzel did a pretty good jump stepping up and taking on the challenge,” Appling said of Valentine’s play.
All in all, it was a solid victory for the Spartans. After playing miserably in the first half, falling behind by as many as ten points, they fought back and played tremendously well in the second, holding their turnovers to just five, getting to the line a whopping 32 times and oh yeah, shooting 87% from the field but it still couldn’t escape the criticisms of Izzo.
“We had a new special tonight,” Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said. “Numbers do lie. You shoot 59% and play that poorly, the numbers lie. Inexcusable effort, inexcusable performance. In the second half we regrouped and our kids came out and played hard. It was led by Appling and we found a way to win.”
Moving forward, this Michigan State basketball team (18-4, 7-2) will have some time off here before taking on Minnesota at home next Wednesday.
Follow Ryan Squanda on twitter @squandarunner