Jan. 20, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com On-Line Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - Keith Appling explained his late-game heroics in Michigan State's critical 59-56 victory over Ohio State as someone possessing the rarest virtue of all in this instant-gratification world.
"I just try to let the game come to me," said Appling, who scored eight of his team-high 15 points in the second half and six in the final 41 seconds.
Patience may have paid off for the Spartans' junior point guard against the 11th-ranked Buckeyes Saturday night in the Breslin Center, but coach Tom Izzo would sure like to see what kind of difference Appling would make if instead of waiting for the game to come to him, he went to the game right from the opening tip.
"Appling at winning time has been as good as anybody," Izzo said. "He's just got to get that a little earlier in the game. I've got to make sure Keith understands he's got to play that way in the first 35 minutes. He's been so good with his free throws and his shooting down the stretch, but in between....
"We've got to get him to maybe play the full game."
He didn't get his first points until the game was 15 minutes old, but it's not as though he waited until after halftime to show up. He did make 3 of 5 shots for seven first-half points while going toe-to-toe with OSU counterpart Aaron Craft, one of the nation's premier on-ball defenders.
"I want to see how my defender's playing me and see how they're playing us overall," Appling said. "And, I try to get other players involved. I try not to force too many shots and force too many things to happen (because) I like to see the other guys get the ball early."
Consequently, Appling once again saved his best for last.
He foreshadowed his big finish with just over 15 minutes to play after Craft flicked the ball out of his hands on the right baseline. Appling scrambled to regain control and beat the buzzer with a wild, off-balance fling to put MSU ahead, 38-36.
"I realized the shot clock was running down a little bit and my initial thought was to get an easy shot up off the spin," Appling said. "But he knocked the ball loose and I just wanted to pick the ball up and get a shot up as fast as I could."
Twelve minutes later, Appling took matters into his own hands, which were involved in the Spartans' final 11 points.
With 3:34 remaining, the official scorer charged Appling with a missed layup, but it looked more like an "alley-oops" pass for an assist to center Adreian Payne, who scored for a 50-47 lead.
Then, after the Buckeyes re-tied the score, Appling's planned pass to Payne, who drew a foul on the play, led to the layup and free throw that gave Michigan State a three-point lead.
Craft picked Appling's pocket in the backcourt with a minute to go, and the steal led to a pair of game-tying free throws. Appling made up for turning the ball over, however, with a driving layup that put MSU ahead to stay, 55-53, with 41.5 second remaining.
Then, after Branden Dawson rebounded Craft's missed 3-point shot from the left wing, he threw a lead pass to Appling, whose breakout dunk but MSU ahead by four. After Ohio State once again pulled to within one, Appling made a pair of foul shots with seven seconds left to force the Buckeyes into having to go for a 3-pointer, and Shannon Scott's attempt was way off the mark when the buzzer sounded.
"Every player wants the ball when the game's close and you need to make key free throws to win the game," Appling said. "Coach drew up the play for me to get the ball and that's what I wanted to do."
However, it's evident that Izzo doesn't want Appling to wait until the Spartans (16-3, 5-1 Big Ten) are hanging off the edge of the cliff before taking action.
Michigan State's win, combined with Iowa's 70-66 upset of Wisconsin -- the Big Ten's last unbeaten team in conference play - set up a first-place showdown against the Badgers in Madison on Tuesday. Michigan is also 4-1 and Indiana is 3-1 heading into today's game at Northwestern.
Izzo noted that Michigan State's front line continues to produce at a high level. Payne made 5 of 6 shots for 14 points, Dawson chipped in nine and Derrick Nix added eight.
But if Appling can be the catalyst for an outburst by MSU's guards - Gary Harris had eight points but continued to struggle with his shot and Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine combined for just five - the Spartans will have a fighting chance at success during the upcoming torrid stretch of games.
"We are getting better and our guards are going to start shooting it again," Izzo said. "We just need Trice and Harris to start making some shots. If that starts happening, and we get our bigs playing good and our guards, that's the one advantage we have over teams - we do have an inside-outside game.
"Lately, we've just had an inside game but early on we had mostly an outside game, so I think that will come back."
Appling isn't averse to being a go-to guy from the get-go, but said it took him awhile to crack the Buckeyes (13-4, 3-2).
"You've got to give credit to Aaron Craft and the Ohio State defense, too," Appling said. "They did a good job of taking away the gaps I'm used to penetrating and they closed pretty hard on my shots. I just had to let the game come to me and when I did, I got into a rhythm.
"I'm gonna be all right. I just need to keep working as the season progresses and the shots will fall."
Years ago, former MSU coach Jud Heathcote was confronted by a player who didn't appreciate being yanked off the floor so early in the game.
"Coach," the player said, "I need time to get into the flow of the game."
In his postgame press conference, Heathcote recounted what he told the player. "I don't have time for you take so much time to get going," he said.
Izzo isn't quite as impatient as his predecessor, but time is of the essence for Appling.