EAST LANSING — Keith Appling clutched at his legs. Adreian Payne ran gingerly up and down the court.
They were experiencing senior moments … in more ways than one.
Their prime-time performances through both pressure and pain are the reason No. 5 Michigan State escaped No. 3 Ohio State 72-68 in overtime Tuesday night despite blowing a 17-point lead.
Appling started suffering cramps in both legs midway through the second half, yet he managed to hydrate himself enough to score six of his game-high 20 points in overtime. That included finding the strength to drain a clutch 3-pointer with 27.5 seconds left, then making 3 of 4 free throws in the final 14.4 seconds to seal it. He played 43 of the 45 minutes in regulation and OT.
“I was able to fight through it, so I’m not complaining. … I just had to drink a lot of water and Gatorade and get it massaged out,” Appling said, “But there was really nothing I could do with it. I’d never cramped up in a game before. Never.”
As for Payne, MSU coach Tom Izzo said before the game that the senior was “very doubtful” with right foot problems and admitted after that his center hadn’t been practicing lately with it. He didn’t start, then sat for the first 6:47 of the first half.
He went on to play 32 grueling minutes, scoring 18 points with six rebounds. It included two put-back dunks and a 3-pointer that helped the Spartans build a 17-point margin with eight minutes left.
“I wasn’t sure if I was gonna play a lot,” Payne said. “It meant a lot. I just wanted to go out and play and not let my team down.”
But those final eight minutes of regulation – with Appling’s muscles in knots and Payne’s adrenaline starting to dissipate – nearly cost MSU the game.
MSU played without backup point guard Travis Trice, who Izzo said has been sick since around Christmas. Denzel Valentine, whose numbers appeared robust (six points, five assists, five rebounds, two blocks), ran into foul problems in the second half after not committing one in the opening 20 minutes.
Sophomore Valentine picked up his fourth with 6:37 left, then fouled out with 2:02 remaining. Izzo attempted to run off some of the clock with the big lead, but it kept dwindling as Ohio State continued to attack and create offense with its defense (six steals, three blocks in the final half).
Appling nearly gave the game away in the waning seconds of regulation. With the shot clock off, Ohio State’s Shannon Scott stepped into the lane and stole his pass to the wing. His legs didn’t matter at that point – Appling knew he had to retreat and make a play.
“I had to run him down, man,” he said. “I couldn’t turn the ball over and not make a heroic play at the other end.”
Appling summoned enough strength to leap behind Scott and deflect a piece of the ball with his left hand. Payne followed him and knocked aside a potential putback.
It sent the game to overtime. Just enough remained in their tanks.
Izzo was critical of the efforts by Valentine, Gary Harris and Branden Dawson. He had nothing but praise for Appling and Payne.
“If you want to write a story, write on (Appling’s) character and his heart. He. Sucked. It. Up,” Izzo said. “And so did Adreian.”
“Heroic effort,” he added. Two seniors giving everything they had left. And then some.