"I've Never Been More Proud Of A Team"
Jan. 26, 2014
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com On-Line Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - "Disappointed" didn't quite do justice to the way Michigan State coach Tom Izzo felt.
"Crushed," he said, still correcting, still coaching, still looking for answers an hour after Saturday night's 80-75 loss to archrival Michigan at the Breslin Center.
The carnage of No. 3 MSU's first Big Ten loss, and just the second in 20 games, was real. The first meeting between undefeated teams at least six games into the race in 108 conference seasons went to the Wolverines, who, adding insult to injury, took over sole possession of first place.
Undermanned due to the loss of senior power forward Adreian Payne for a fifth straight game with a sprained foot and junior swingman Branden Dawson, who accidentally broke his hand on Thursday, the Spartans couldn't protect an eight-point lead over the final 13:06.
It wasn't for a lack of effort.
Big Ten scoring leader Gary Harris exhausted himself while putting up a career-high 27 points and defending U-M's Nik Stauskas, who matched his season average, good for second in the league, with 19 points.
Point guard Keith Appling, who due to a painful wrist and bruised body, finished with 10 points despite laboring to get a jump-shot to the basket, a career-best 10 assists and just one of MSU's astounding five turnovers. There was backup point guard Travis Trice selling out and little-used Russell Byrd, who played a total of nine minutes in just two appearances over the previous seven games, giving the 13 most intense defensive minutes of his career in place of Dawson.
Then there was freshman Alvin Ellis III, who had MSU won, would have been lauded as the difference in the game. Despite almost no time to work on schemes that didn't include Dawson, Ellis reached double figures for the first time as a Spartan with 12 points.
Moreover, with a gathering of former Michigan State players watching from the stands at midcourt, the Spartans clawed back from a nine-point deficit with 31 seconds remaining to make it a one-possession game, and be realistically still in it, with 10 seconds to go.
Alas, the officials call or no-call the Spartans needed didn't come, and the free throws that had to be missed weren't, but when the smoke cleared, and Izzo saw who was still standing, he couldn't be disappointed by his team, only crushed by the weight of the numbers on the scoreboard.
"In the 30 years I've been here (the last 19 as head coach), I've never been more proud of a team," Izzo said. "I played guys that haven't played in a month. Keith Appling - I can't tell you how much that kid sucked it up. If Harris isn't the best player on both ends of the court in the league, God bless whoever is.
"I had some guys who stepped up. I think we got a lot out of a lot of guys." Denzel Valentine, Matt Costello, Kenny Kaminski, Alex Gauna, Gavin Schilling and even walk-on Dan Chapman also all did what they could to give Michigan State a chance against a scrappy Michigan team that was deadly from the 3-point and the foul lines.
"I learned a lot about my team," Izzo said. "I had 50 guys back (for) the game. They can feel proud when they leave this place. If they don't that's their fault because team played as hard as any team I've coached.
Izzo's boyhood idol while growing up in Iron Mountain, legendary Green Bay Packer's coach Vince Lombardi, is credited with saying, "Adversity doesn't build character, it reveals it."
Izzo put it another way.
"I had some guys I questioned if I'd want to go to war with," Izzo said. "I question it less today. "
There's a theory being proffered that as the Spartans' supporting cast members grow into the roles they've been thrust into by Payne and Dawson's absence, they will be that much stronger upon their return. It could be just like 2000 when Mateen Cleaves came back from foot surgery in time to lead MSU to Big Ten and national championships.
Izzo wouldn't disagree this time, though he emphasized the Spartans have to figure out how to play even smarter, harder and tougher in short order with a challenging road trip to Iowa looming on Tuesday.
Something else that was revealed by the events of the past three days left Izzo heartened.
"As upset as I am about the loss, it's good to see passion about basketball," he said. "I want them to realize the hate for losing - definitely the hate of losing to our rival. I have very few things to complain about, and I don't do that very often."
What Izzo won't find his players dwelling on is what if Payne and Dawson had played?
"Because that's all they are - what-ifs," Harris said. "It's not like we can go back in time and have them play. Hopefully (Payne and Dawson) will get back as soon as possible, but we've got to focus on the team and the guys that are playing.
"That's all we can focus on."
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