Feb. 7, 2013
Had Michigan State coach Tom Izzo opened his postgame press conference with one of his standard no-holds-barred critiques of his team, he might have hurt someone's feelings.
However, since Izzo knows the bruised and battered Spartans can't afford another injury of any sort, he held back for maybe the first time ever.
"I'm speechless," Izzo said after No. 12 MSU managed to survive with a 61-50 decision against Minnesota in the Breslin Center Wednesday night.
It's not that the Spartans didn't do plenty to raise Izzo's ire despite their wounded condition, and he did eventually address each and every issue in measured doses.
Michigan State came out lackadaisically for the second straight game and scored only 18 first-half points to trail by two at intermission. The Spartans made only 24 percent of their field-goal attempts in the first 20 minutes and were well on their way to getting outrebounded by the unheard of margin of 38-28 for the game.
But the way MSU came back like Lazarus to defeat a team that was considered a legitimate Big Ten championship contender before sustaining a four-game losing streak was inexplicable to say the least.
Michigan State started the game with backup point guard Travis Trice in street clothes because the concussion symptoms he suffered in the first game of the season returned after he was hit in the fact in last week's win against Illinois.
Shooting guard Gary Harris started even though he's been dealing with back spasms that have him moving as gingerly as a 99-year-old man.
Things took a turn for the worse when forward Branden Dawson, who continues to work his way back into shape after undergoing off-season knee surgery, turned his right ankle, and center Adreian Payne was hit in the face so hard his nose wouldn't stop bleeding and was initially feared to be broken.
Then, with 1:17 remaining, things went from worse to potentially back-breaking when point guard Keith Appling had his right (shooting) arm yanked out of its shoulder socket during a physical encounter with a Golden Gopher. Appling was in serious distress as he was helped off the court, his arm dangling lifelessly at his side.
Amazingly, Dawson and Payne returned in time to help hold off Minnesota and Appling, with his shoulder back in place, came back in time to tell the coaches he was willing to play the final minute, but they declined his offer.
Somehow, Harris made 4-of-8 3-pointers and led all scorers with 15 points, Appling had 14 before he called it a night and Payne had 11 points and seven rebounds.
How has MSU limped its way to key victories that keep it within striking distance of league-leading Indiana when other teams might have packed it in on account of too much pain?
"I feel like we've been lucky," senior center and Derrick Nix said. "We won't be able to keep coming into games without a sense of urgency like we did to night."
It doesn't seem to matter that it would make sense for the Spartans to visit the emergency room before Saturday's game at Purdue.
"It's been tough, but we have to stay motivated and know that every guy is going to give it his all," Nix said.
Harris, who's also been dealing with injuries to both shoulders for most of the season and re-aggravated one against the Gophers, didn't even want to quantify his discomfort level.
"I don't know about percentages, I just know I felt good before this," said Harris. "I was getting good looks with a lot of good passes and Izzo says to always be ready to shoot. So when I was open, I just let the ball go."
Harris actually looked better when he was able to muster up a semblance of a runner's stride than he did while trying to walk, and he tries to override his pain mentally.
"I just have to keep toughing it out, so I did," Harris said.
Izzo agonized over his decision to keep Harris in the game for a total of 36 minutes.
"I just kept asking him, `Can you go?' and thank God he was smart enough to say yes because I don't know what we would have done (without him) at that point," Izzo said. "That kid showed me some character and heart. That was a way-more heroic effort than it looked because he was dragging his whole body.
"That guy's got ice in his veins and is tougher than nails in his heart. I'm overdoing it, and normally I don't do that, but I think it was one of the guttier performances of my career."
For the record, Appling said he should be able to play against the Boilermakers, Payne's nose isn't broken and Izzo plans to tone things down in practice.
But the reason Michigan State won, Izzo said, is because they improbably didn't commit a turnover in the first half and ended up with a season-low five - another unheard of number for an Izzo team. While Izzo would love nothing more than to duplicate that performance against Purdue, he knows such hopes are unrealistic.
Furthermore, he's not about to let the Spartans use injuries as an alibi for coming out of the chute so slowly or not playing well. Nor will he lower expectations no matter how much reaching for the top hurts.
"I'm more on the frustration side because we had some effort-related things again," Izzo said. "I'm proud of the fact that in the last two second halves we responded but I'm disappointed that a good team should have to get to that point because you're going to run out of those situations if you don't take care of business earlier.
"Look, this is not going to be a great team until Branden Dawson plays with the energy he's capable of, until we get a little more healthy and we realize we've got to communicate and check better. If that happens, this team has a chance to be better than I thought; if it doesn't happen, this team will be worse than you think.
"And that's about as blunt as I can say it."
By the end of the press conference, at least no one could say Izzo wouldn't be back to normal in time for the trip to West Lafayette.