Keith Appling did what Keith Appling does down the stretch. Denzel Valentine provided a steadying influence and all-around presence. The two helped rescue MSU from a 10-point halftime deficit and, more pressingly, overcome the injury losses of Travis Trice and Gary Harris.
It wasn’t a pretty 80-75 victory over Illinois on Thursday night – “We found a way to win, which is about the only good thing I have to say,” MSU coach Tom Izzo begrudgingly admitted afterward. The Spartans struggled with turnovers and inability to guard the perimeter early in falling behind 37-27 at intermission.
“We took a giant step backward in the first half,” Izzo said. “Inexcusable effort and inexcusable performance.”
His team opened the second half, however, with a 14-0 run to pull away for good, though the Illini remained close throughout the final 20 minutes. Appling scored 19 of his game-high 24 points in the final half, adding eight rebounds and seven assists. Valentine added 14 points, just one turnover and played some strong defense.
And MSU needed every bit of it.
Trice left the game in the first half after taking a knee to the head. He did not return to the bench, and Izzo did not know his status. “That ain’t good,” he said of Trice, who suffered a broken nose and concussion in the opening game against Connecticut.
Harris suffered back spasms after falling hard to the floor on a breakaway dunk attempt on which he was fouled. He left the arena midway through the second half and eventually returned to the bench, but Harris did not play the final 12 minutes after scoring 14 points.
That left Appling and Valentine (with a little aid from Russell Byrd) to occupy the perimeter for the rest of the game.
“I think I have that winner’s mentality,” said Valentine, who had 12 points in the final half. “When the pressure’s on, I feel like I can step up and make plays and do whatever my team needs to win.”
The two combined to score 24 of MSU’s final 33 points over the final 13:09. Branden Dawson (who didn’t start the second half) had six of the other nine down the stretch, including an alley-oop dunk off a brilliant Appling drive and lob that essentially sealed the game with less than two minutes to play.
“I really donât have to get motivated for crunch time. Itâs crunch time – you should always be motivated,” Appling said. “That’s winning time. I feel like that’s the part of the game where I focus in the most.”
Izzo though said he wants more out of his point guard when the game is not on the line.
“You can’t (just) operate in crisis management time, you have to do it in preventative management time,” Izzo said of Appling. “But at least he did it.”
As for one of his other captains, Izzo said he benched center Derrick Nix for the game’s first 9:17 because the senior missed a class on Friday and skipped a tutor appointment Monday.
Izzo called it “a distraction” that contributed to the Spartans’ lackluster first half. Nix finished with eight points and just one rebound, but Izzo hopes he took home a bigger message.
“Derrick Nix is 13 credit hours from graduating. He will be the first human being in his family who has graduated,” Izzo said. “It will be a cold day in hell before I do anything but get him graduated.
“If he has to sit the rest of the games, he will. … For that kid to graduate in four years will be triumphant for me in a positive way. Presidents and the NCAA have put it on the coaches to get these kids to graduate. Did that hurt my team tonight? you’re damn right it did.”
Izzo brought up lack of leadership and the Nix “distraction,” two of the things the coach said plagued his team two years ago. The one other negative he left out was chemistry, though his Spartans were in each others’ faces often throughout the game.
Still, they improved to 18-4 and 7-2 in the Big Ten, a game behind Michigan and Indiana.
“Itâs hard as a coach to give your team credit. You wonder why coaches never give their team credit. Too many other people are tweeting them all the credit, and some guys just couldnât handle it,” Izzo said. “I thought we had some guys who showed they couldnât handle success, and it really bothers me and shows maybe our lack of leadership. We’re going to have to grow on it and gain from it.”
MSU gets six days to heal some wounds – physical and mental – and figure out who’ll be missing for how long.
It’s equally as imperative that MSU players take that time to also internally search for those qualities Izzo thinks are missing, that emotional glue which has made his good teams great and his great teams champions.
His Spartans tend to discover those intangibles in February.