Jan. 8, 2014
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist | @GrinzOnGreen
EAST LANSING, Mich. - It was a painful way to make a point that could prove critical as the season grinds on.
Keith Appling and Adreian Payne are indeed capable of willing Michigan State from the brink of disaster even while dealing with excruciating ailments, as they did in Tuesday night's 72-68 overtime victory against No. 3 Ohio State in the Big Ten home opener at the Breslin Center.
However, the fifth-ranked Spartans should have a somewhat better understanding of what will be required of all of them going forward, and how good they can be if they ever get healthy, even if head coach Tom Izzo struggles to envision a finished product.
Despite playing the entire final 25 minutes with all-but debilitating leg cramps, Appling came through with 20 points and his last of five assists led to the Kenny Kaminski 3-point field goal that put MSU ahead for good, 62-60, with 2:22 remaining. Before the game, Izzo was sure he would have to scratch Payne from the lineup because he developed a sprain in the foot that has also been adversely affected by plantar fasciitis. Fortunately for MSU, Izzo's outside hope that the emotion of the game would override Payne's pain came to fruition.
The 6-foot-10 forward's 18-points, including a pair of raucous tip-dunks as the Spartans built a 17-point, second-half lead, and a 3-pointer that broke the Buckeyes' back in the overtime, were a testament to his powers of perseverance.
"I get to the building and he's not playing," Izzo said of the medical report he got on Payne after arriving at the Breslin Center. "He didn't warm up, and I said see if the adrenaline gets going when the game starts. And he said he wanted to play.
"I'm watching Appling's leg tighten up like a rock right in front of my eyes, starting in the first half, and he just sucked it up. But (the Buckeyes) killed us on the boards (42-28) because we had a couple guys that just didn't show up, and then to lose a lead like that, it's hard to feel good about it. I think I'll find some solace in the fact that my seniors were warriors."
By refusing to let their injuries become what would have been legitimate excuses for letting victory slip away, Appling and Payne provided inspiration at a pivotal time in what figures to the final matchup between top-five teams at Breslin this season. Kaminski, who's in the early stages of developing his role as an outside scoring threat, fed off Appling and Payne's determination.
"I feel like after I hit that (3-pointer) I knew we were going to win," said the red-shirt freshman from Medina, Ohio. "With the leadership of Keith and A.P., I knew there was no way we were going to lose the game.
"Keith's probably our best player on the team, and he made a choice to go baseline and throw a freshman the ball. This was my first big game I've ever played in my life, and he trusted me with the game. That says a lot about him, and it was just a great basketball play. As soon as I caught the ball I knew it was going to go in."
Immediately after the game, Izzo was stewing about how the Spartans could have squandered what was their "greatest" 30-minute stretch of basketball so far this season, and among the best in recent memory. Michigan State had just four turnovers at halftime and seven with seven minutes left in regulation, its fast break was humming and the defense was in the process of turning Ohio State over 21 times.
Had MSU continued on that steep ascent, it would have won handily, maybe too handily. By putting themselves in a free fall as the Buckeyes went on a 16-2 run to force overtime, the Spartans had to find a way to get their parachute open before it was too late.
Appling did it while enduring pain superseded during his career only by injury he sustained when he fell directly on his hip earlier this season in the loss to North Carolina. The situation was compounded by the absence of backup point guard Travis Trice, who was so sick he couldn't play, and foul trouble to Denzel Valentine, who picked up his fifth with 2:02 left in the second half.
Furthermore, Gary Harris still isn't where he should be coming off an offseason ankle injury. He scored 13 points in 42 minutes, which Izzo said are too many given his fitness level.
"We kind of blew an opportunity to make a statement, but at the same time we still understood that we had the opportunity to win the game," Appling said. "It's just what I got to do. If I'm out there on the floor, I can't make any excuses. I just have to perform and do whatever I've got to do to help my team win.
"I feel like all teams come together after winning a big game and fighting through adversity to do it. Hopefully, we learned something from losing a large lead late in the game, and at the same time take our win for what it is - be happy about it but not satisfied."
Being from Dayton, Payne has an extra stake in every game he plays against Ohio State. While he may have looked like his old self during those dunks, he was feeling discomfort with every move he made.
"It was painful the whole time," he said. "It's still painful."
Izzo said fans may have learned something about Payne and that he may have learned something he didn't know about himself before facing the Buckeyes, though he respectfully disagreed.
"Honestly I didn't because I've always been a tough guy," Payne said. "In high school, I tore my labrum in practice and played the next day in what was a big game. I've had plantar fasciitis here and it was hurting me but I had to find a way to play. Now I've got this injury and I've just got to find another way to play.
"That's what leaders do. They try to find ways to inspire their teammates and make sure they keep going. This was a big game and if I was to sit they would probably feel some type of way, so I just had to find a way they made sure they were ready to go. With me dressing, and out on the court with them, they felt better. I think that's one way of me showing I'm a leader."
At some point Wednesday, Izzo expected he too would be more appreciative of the Spartans' death-defying effort thanks to some character-revealing performances.
"I know this, we must be pretty good because we are beat up," Izzo said. "I should be happier than I am, but I'm a big-picture guy. You shouldn't have those kinds of letdowns no matter what the other team does.
"I don't want to overreact when I know what Appling, Harris and Payne were going through. I don't want to make excuses. We survived. Great teams have to survive. I think we're a damn good team, but I don't know where we are right now because we just haven't had my top eight guys practice. I do know this, if ever we get everybody even close to healthy, we have a chance to be a great team."
At least, it appears, he doesn't have leadership and character to worry about.