March 7, 2014
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist | @GrinzOnGreen
EAST LANSING, Mich. - The road to recovery just got a little shorter for Michigan State, and if the second half of Thursday's Senior Night victory against Iowa is an indication of how far the Spartans have come through adversity, it may just lead to college basketball's Promised Land in April.
"Hopefully, we'll see you all in Dallas for the Final Four," point guard Keith Appling said to the majority of a wildly supportive Breslin Center crowd that remained despite the late hour to bid adieu to him and fellow seniors Adreian Payne and Dan Chapman during the traditional postgame ceremony.
The will-they-ever-win-again-feeling that clouded the Spartans' 53-46 home loss to Illinois on Saturday gave way to a renewal of Appling, Payne and Chapman's early season ambition of maintaining Coach Tom Izzo's 100-percent attendance rate of senior classes in the Final Four.
"See you (next week) in the Big Ten Tournament, see you in the NCAA Tournament, and if we're really good, we'll see you in Dallas," Izzo said as the fans erupted with approval.
After a series of fits and starts in the first half, which ended with the Hawkeyes leading by two, Michigan State put its trials and tribulations of the injury-plagued opening 29 games and 20 minutes of the season behind it with really good play in the second half.
An 11-0 run, that actually began with a pair of Payne free throws with 10 seconds remaining before halftime, released the Spartans from the shackles of their recent past and launched them to an 86-76 triumph.
Appling was suddenly Appling again, making his first pair of 3-point field goals since Jan. 28 - at Iowa of all places - and finishing with 12 points on 4-for-7 shooting. Thanks to a sore right wrist, eight games had passed since Appling's previous double-figure performance - also against the Hawkeyes.
Payne's fitness-level appeared to be the best it's been since before he was sidelined for seven games with a sprained foot. He was active and aggressive while scoring 14 points and grabbing four rebounds.
And Izzo's "unsung hero," Branden Dawson, was a beast in his second game back since sitting out all of February and the last two games of January with a broken hand. He affected the game with seven rebounds, five steals, three blocked shots and two assists to go with his eight points. After Izzo relented to Dawson's repeated requests to guard Devyn Marble, the Hawkeye star's shooting dropped from 7-for-10 in the first half to 2-for-7 in the second.
"B.J. (Dawson) was the first guy in a long time who kept saying give him to me in the huddle, and that for us was a step in the right direction," Izzo said. The irony of the tale of two halves wasn't lost on Izzo right down to the fact that team scoring leader Gary Harris struggled with cramps the entire game, but still managed to score 14 points.
"I think that was the worst I've seen Keith Appling play in the first 10 minutes," he said. "Keith Appling the first half to the second half was Keith Appling the last six weeks to Keith Appling the first six weeks. (But) a Spartan game wouldn't be a Spartan game if somebody didn't (suffer some sort of ailment). When Gary went down, I thought it was his back, but he was just cramping up all over his entire body. That's kind of poetic justice, I guess."
The message at halftime was to "stop talking it and start walking it, and stop worrying," Izzo said.
The Spartans started to find their rhythm on Appling's first breakthrough 3-pointer, which brought the crowd to its feet and put MSU ahead, 53-47. They began to pull away on eight straight points by guard Travis Trice, who finished with a team-high 17, and blew out to a 19-point lead on Appling's second triple, with 3:27 remaining.
"It felt good to see the ball go through the net," Appling said. "I feel my game opened up after that (first 3-pointer). I got a couple steals, got into the open court and made some things happen. I feel like we're kind of all getting it back together now. We had a couple of practices that we were all able to practice together and are just now starting to get back into the flow of things.
"I wouldn't say (it feels like the season is just starting), but there's a lot of basketball left. We just have to continue to practice hard, practice more together and see where it gets us. If we continue to do what we do tonight, we'll be fine."
Payne went through a range of feelings from the time the ball was tipped in his final home game to when he carried his biggest fan and inspiration, Lacey Holsworth, the St. Johns 8-year-old battling cancer, to the afterglow celebration.
"It was emotional, just knowing it was going to be my last game on that court, playing with your teammates in front of your home crowd," Payne said. "I was flying around the first couple minutes and they took me out. Once I got back in and I settled down, it was easy.
"Lacey was here for the last game, and her parents were saying they were going to cry. But they did well."
The Spartans are going into their final regular-season game, Sunday at Ohio State, and the postseason with a frame of mind that's much-improved from what it was after losing for the third time in four games just five days earlier.
"I think this is the first time we felt like we've played together as a team in a while," Payne said. "It was just tough because we had so many injuries, but now that we've got everybody back, it was fun. Everybody got to play and contribute, and it was just a great end."
Especially if it means the Spartans can finally stop talking about what's wrong with them.
"It's not an excuse, what these guys have been through," Izzo said. "Not many teams could have been able to go through what these guys have been through.
"It's special for these seniors around here to end the right way."