March 4, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com On-Line Columnist
It's the anguish every high-level college athlete signs up for but hopes to experience only on the rarest of occasions. Michigan State point guard Keith Appling's number came up Sunday night against Michigan and the trauma will haunt him for days, weeks and months, if not forever.
After MSU clawed back from a 10-point deficit to even the score at the Crisler Center, the Spartans had the ball right where they wanted it with a half-minute to play -- in Appling's hands.
Then, it wasn't.
As Appling let his guard down in the Michigan State backcourt for a split-second to get instructions from the bench, Wolverine guard Trey Burke swooped in low, picked the ball clean out Appling's pocket and cashed in his plunder for a dunk that would stand as the difference in MSU's costly 58-57 loss.
There would even be one last opportunity for Appling to reduce that horrible sequence of a few seconds earlier to the realm of the inconsequential.
But, his inbounds pass from in front of the Spartan bench to freshman guard Gary Harris never came back to him on a give-and-go -- Burke again was responsible for taking the ball away -- and Appling stood uncovered in the left corner from where he might have launched a game-winning buzzer-beater.
The Spartans will rue this loss unlike most not only because it was their third consecutive defeat and it came against their archrivals, but also because it delivered at least a share of the Big Ten championship to Indiana. For Michigan State to defend its 2012 title, it has to win its last two games at home against Wisconsin and Northwestern, and the Hoosiers have to lose at home against Ohio State and at Michigan.
There was plenty of responsibility for the loss to go around. Coach Tom Izzo said the drop-off from how the Spartans played in the first 19 minutes, when it led by as many as seven just before halftime, to how they performed in final minute of the first half and the opening five minutes of the second period was what cost them the win.
It wouldn't be fair to say Appling suffered the loss more than anyone else on the team, but circumstances dictated that his reaction be probed more deeply than the others because the spotlight shone brightest on him.
It's almost a given that Burke's steal will be shown countless times from now until after the conference and national tournaments. Even if Appling can turn his eyes away from the TV, his conscience won't let him remove the replay button in his mind.
Appling explained his pivotal lapse like someone who knows full well it wouldn't happen again the next 1,000 times that routine situation comes up.
"I kind of looked to Coach Izzo to see when he wanted me to call a time-out," Appling said. "I turned my head, took my eye off things."
It didn't affect him immediately because "you go on to the next play," Appling said. "It's basketball. Things happen. It didn't get to me while I was on the court, but after the game it all hit. I'll be kicking myself over that for as long as I play college basketball because I shouldn't have let that happen.
"No matter the circumstances or the situation, I should have been more aware."
And, the Spartans should have done a better time of protecting the ball in general. Their 18 turnovers led to 18 Michigan points. The Wolverines' 44 points in the paint were more the result of dunks and layups fed by turnovers than dominating post play, and made their 0-for-12 shooting from 3-point range irrelevant when it should have been a key to MSU success.
Appling will wrestle with the turnover for the immediate future, but eventually it will just make him wince when he reflects on it years from now, just as Izzo still does when he thinks about his missed free throw at the end of a high school tournament loss.
"He made that turnover at the end, but remember he caused the turnover to get the ball back to us," Izzo said. "I'm really not worried about Appling. Most of the time he checked pretty well, though when he got in foul trouble we had to change some things. He pushed the ball a lot better than he has been pushing it.
"And, he missed some shots, but that last play, uh..., if we would have played better, some of our `bigs' and others inside, early in that half... . We just got away from our game plan. I don't think we handled the ball tonight."
Appling made 3 of 9 field-goal attempts for nine points, but just two of those turnovers were his and he handed out five assists.
"I thought we didn't match their intensity in the second half," said center Derrick Nix, who scored eight points on 2-for-9 shooting and turned the ball over six times. "They got the lead and we tried to fight back, but we pretty much lost it at the beginning of the second half.
"We just didn't make key plays. When the game's on the line, we've got to have some key plays."
The last one was there to be made, but it broke down.
"They switched (defenders) and that kind of threw us off and we just had to improvise," said Harris, who scored 16 and had only one turnover until the fateful giveaway at the end. "I was supposed to get me or Keith a shot, and I turned the ball over."
Regardless, Appling will be the front man for this loss and he'll deal with that role the only way he knows.
"We've got a couple home games left, and every guy on this team knows that we still have to play harder and execute our offense," he said. "Things just don't go your way all the time. Some nights the ball is going to go in, and some nights it's not.
"Things haven't been going my way lately, but I'm a mentally tough person so I don't let it bother me too much. I'll just watch the film and try to grow from it. It's not something you can dwell on or beat yourself up about."