Feb. 1, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com On-Line Columnist
If the only good thing you can say about a team is that it figured out a way to win despite a lackluster performance, then at least you know it's resourceful.
That's about all Michigan State was applauding after coming back from a 10-point halftime deficit to defeat Illinois, 80-75, Thursday night in the Breslin Center.
Thanks to the re-emergence of junior point guard Keith Appling from a one-game disappearance in Sunday's loss at Indiana and freshman guard Denzel Valentine from a Big Ten-season-long fog, the Spartans were able to overcome injury and apathy with their contender's status hanging in the balance.
Appling did his best imitation of former MSU star guard Steve Smith by taking over the game in the second half, scoring 19 of 24 points and handing out all but one of his seven assists after intermission.
Spurred on by the advice of another Spartan player -- his dad Carlton -- Valentine filled in the gaps created when Travis Trice left the game for good late in the first half after apparently aggravating the facial injury he sustained in the season opener, and Gary Harris bowed out with back spasms in the second half.
Valentine produced 12 of his career-high 14 points - six more than his total from the previous six games, including three scoreless showings -- in the final 19:24.
Michigan State's disinterested approach to Illinois (15-7, 2-6 Big Ten) was difficult to decipher given the way it gave the Hoosiers all they could handle in splendid five-point battle royale, even though foul trouble limited Appling to a season-low three points.
No one was more grateful for the way Appling and Valentine came through to help prevent one loss from becoming two than forward Branden Dawson, who felt like he let the team down while scoring 12 points and pulling down nine rebounds.
Afterward, Dawson addressed his teammates and coach Tom Izzo in the lockerroom.
"I just told the team I was sorry for the way I came out," he said. "Coach has been talking about us taking steps forward and how tonight we took a monster step back. I think we kind of took Illinois for granted because of their record, and we said `OK, this is going to be an easy win at home.'
"I just told the team that I came out without energy and thanked the guys for picking me up."
The Fighting Illini backed the Spartans up onto the ropes with 3-point baskets and superior effort and toughness while going after the ball. Illinois scored 12 points off the nine MSU turnovers it forced in the first half.
Appling said he didn't make a point of atoning for what happened at Indiana or make a conscious decision to put the team on his shoulders down the stretch. His competitive instincts just kicked in.
"I didn't realize (Trice and Harris) were injured until a media timeout when I looked around and didn't see them," Appling said. "I really don't have to get motivated for crunch time. You should always be motivated, but when it's winning time, I feel like that's the time when I focus in most."
Appling did "Smitty from Detroit City" proud by drawing fouls, making plays and scoring in the clutch. The Spartans regained a five-point lead with 1:45 remaining when Appling, though stumbling through the lane, had the presence of mind to loft the ball toward the basket for a Dawson dunk.
A minute later, his dribble-drive across the foul-line, spin move around a defender and take-off to the basket for a 74-68 advantage was vintage Smith.
"Going into the second half, we kind of got an earful from all the coaches and we just wanted to come out and play as hard as we could, and I tried to do everything I could on the offensive and defensive ends to put us ahead," Appling said. "It was real tough for us because a lot of guys had to play extended minutes, but I thought Denzel did a good job of stepping up and taking on some of the challenge."
Valentine admittedly had been pressing to match the personal success that came so effortlessly to him while leading Lansing Sexton High School to back-to-back state championships the previous two seasons. His father, who played for Jud Heathcote from 1984-88, was also his coach at Sexton.
"That was Valentine's best game and I'm going to give his dad some credit," Izzo said. "I asked his dad to come over the other day just to talk and see how we can help him because he's been struggling. His dad was a true coach and an awesome guy.
"I think Denzel did some goofy things off the bat, but really beared down. I was proud of the job he did, even defensively. He earned it."
Carlton's counsel to his son wasn't particularly profound, except perhaps in the way it gave him permission to lighten up on himself.
His second-half-opening layup sparked the 14-0 run that erased the deficit and put the Spartans ahead the remainder of the game.
"I just came out relaxed and didn't put any pressure on myself," Valentine said. "When (Izzo) brought my dad in for a meeting I was happy because it showed that coach really cared and would do whatever it takes to see what's going on with me and to help me out.
"He's my dad and he said I'm a good player, and if I just go out there and play, the game's going to come to me. My dad knows what he's talking about, and finally today I got tired of putting pressure on myself. It was so stressful, and I just let it go."
Izzo refused to be impressed by the way MSU made 87.5 percent of its second-half shots (14 of 16) for ridiculously good 59.5-percent accuracy (25 of 42) in the game, and outrebounded the Illini 33-24.
To do that while "playing that poorly, the numbers lie," said Izzo.
If the Spartans have to shoot like they did against Illinois to win on regular basis, Izzo knows they're in trouble because it's unsustainable.
But if the simple truth coming out of the way they won is that they're resourceful, there are worse things for the way a team can be.