Jan. 22, 2014
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist | @GrinzOnGreen
But given the way it pulled No. 3 MSU out of the doldrums during a two-minute burst against Indiana at the Breslin Center Tuesday night, it will do.
After a relatively quiet first 30 minutes, Dawson suddenly surged to the fore and the Spartans couldn't help but get caught up in his wake en route to a 71-66 victory that kept them undefeated in the Big Ten at 7-0 and raised their overall record to 18-1 - the best 19-game start in school history.
Dawson was awash in affirmation after his three-point play with 9:43 remaining wiped out a 48-46 deficit and put Michigan State ahead for good.
Sophomore shooting guard Gary Harris piled up the 20 second-half points the Spartans couldn't have done without, but Dawson was the catalyst.
"Even the players in the huddle, Gary - `That's the Branden Dawson,' Denzel (Valentine) - `That's the Branden Dawson,' Tom Izzo - `That's the Branden Dawson,' " who can change the tenor of a game," Izzo said. "That's why he frustrates me."
It wasn't the first time the sublimely athletic Dawson has altered the dimensions of a game closing in on the Spartans, which makes his lapses all the more maddening for all concerned.
But with senior power forward Adreian Payne missing his fourth straight game while an immobilizing boot protected his sprained right foot, and senior point guard Keith Appling playing like he hit the wall (and the floor, and Indiana elbows, and the backboard stand), Dawson's latest reincarnation couldn't have been more timely.
"In the first half, as a team, we didn't come out with the same intensity," Dawson said. "Coach said with Adreian Payne out, someone's going to have to pick it up. I met with (Izzo) the day before. He brought me in and said we need you back to the old B.J., playing like you and doing the things you do best.
"And I told him, `Hey, I'm going to come out and bring energy."
It's not known how many times Izzo said, "Now would be a good time," under his breath while waiting for Dawson to make his move.
It finally began to unfold when Dawson posted up Hoosier forward Austin Etherington, who fouled him as he powered up for the lay-in that tied the score. Dawson's free throw put the Spartans ahead, 49-48.
"It felt good," Dawson said. "The crowd was up on their feet and that kind of started it for us. Gary Harris picked it up, but I think that play really changed the game."
Dawson helped add to the lead with his play on both ends of the court. His defensive rebound and outlet pass to Valentine led to a fast-break basket which earned him his only assist of the game. Valentine also completed a three-point play for a 52-48 lead with 9:16 remaining.
Then, after Indiana closed back to within two, Dawson tipped in Harris' off-balance jumper for a 54-50 lead with 7:19 to go.
"Dawson had a two-minute stretch where he might have won the game for us," Izzo said. Added Indiana head coach and former Izzo assistant Tom Crean, "In the span where they had a good run..., Branden Dawson was phenomenal."
The Spartans had been masters at manufacturing victories in Payne's absence, but it appeared their luck was running out until Dawson provided the impetus for a 21-6 game-winning run. It may have been unexpected given the way things were going, but perfectly explainable by those who know how Dawson is capable of playing.
"Coach showed me some film of when I wasn't really going hard or playing hard," Dawson said. "I say I definitely changed my mind-set coming out in the second half. Coach told me we needed someone because our bigs were in foul trouble and someone had to pick it up.
"And that's what I did."
Dawson's issues with a high ceiling and all-too-often low-revving motor appeared to be a thing of the past when he was close to averaging close to a double-double through the season's first seven games. Then, he had a setback with a mind-numbing two-point, three-rebound performance in the perfection-spoiling loss to North Carolina.
He continued to go through ups and downs in subsequent games - he had a total of 10 points and 14 rebounds in the overtime home wins over Ohio State and Minnesota - but his 13 points and nine rebounds against Indiana may have him back on track.
"I kind of do frustrate myself because I get caught up thinking a little too much rather than just going out there and playing my game," Dawson said. "Tonight, it wasn't the same as in the Ohio State and Minnesota games. It all started with practice.
"I can catch it myself, but most the time Coach, he's always yelling. Tonight, Coach just told me to stay aggressive. When I had the three-point play and then came down with the rebound and gave it to Denzel and he scored, (Izzo) said, `You see? You see what I'm talking about?' He just kept saying that."
While the Spartans have managed to play around Dawson's slumps, his ability to impact the team with a burst is unmatched.
"When he's serious and focused, he has a different look on his face and he's intense," Valentine said. "He doesn't always know when it's happening, so when I saw it, I was just trying to point it out in the moment so he'd know. He's a big-time player, an energy guy, who gets rebounds and finishes.
"When he does that, we're a way-better team."
Harris followed up his career-high 26-point performance that paced MSU's win against the Hoosiers in Bloomington on Jan. 14 with 24 points on 8-for-13 shooting from the floor and 4-for-6 from 3 point range. He couldn't bring the Spartans back alone, however.
Dawson "gave us defense, energy, offensive boards, defensive boards, he got an and-1, got a rebound, outlet it and we got another and-1," Harris said. "He was a spark for us during that stretch. He definitely got us going as a team, and once he started doing that, the lead started to spread."
On Monday, Izzo predicted that "if we can get B.J. to take another step, that's going to be a giant step for this team."
The only smile of his post-game press conference creased his face when he was reminded of that comment.
"Yeah, (it was a step), but I meant for the whole game," Izzo said. "That was a step for that stretch. He did step up, and he was OK, and yet, I think he has a lot more to give. I think we'll get it out of him now.
"He's getting better. Maybe this will make him understand."