March 23, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
AUBURN HILLS, Mich. - There is no apparent end in sight to the number of ways Michigan State can get the job done on the basketball court.
Had you said beforehand that junior guard Keith Appling, the Spartans' hottest offensive player in the previous five games, would go nearly 27 minutes before netting his first points, and then leave the game for good with just one basket with 8:35 remaining, and MSU would beat Memphis in their second game of the NCAA Tournament, you would have been rebuffed with a, "No way."
And had you also predicted the Spartans would trounce the superbly athletic Tigers 70-48, as they did Saturday at The Palace, to advance to their fifth Sweet 16 in six seasons and 11th overall under coach Tom Izzo, you might have received an offer of a bet for everything you own.
You also would have had better insight to Michigan State's adaptability than even Izzo has.
With Appling stymied by a Memphis defensive attack designed to cut off the Spartans' head in the hopes the body would die, and then sidelined for the duration by a recurring shoulder injury, MSU went into Hydra mode - cut off one head and two more appear just like the mythical Greek water beast.
In this case, it was:
- Gary Harris who scored 16 of his career-high 23 points in the first half, and might have had more if not for foul trouble that limited him to eight minutes in the second half. Harris, MSU's leading scorer in Big Ten play, but who tailed off recently, scored 28 points in his previous three games combined.
- And Adreian Payne, who begged his teammates' forgiveness immediately after committing six turnovers, scoring only seven points and collecting just four rebounds in Thursday's opener against Valparaiso. The junior forward roared back with 14 points and 10 rebounds for his ninth career double-double, a career-high five blocked shots, two steals and only three turnovers.
- And Denzel Valentine, the true freshman guard who filled in at the point for Appling down the stretch. Michigan State not only staved Memphis off with its best playmaker on the bench, it increased its lead from 11 points (54-43) to 22.
- And Branden Dawson, the sophomore forward who had the most active 1-point performance in recent Spartan memory. Dawson smiled as though he just scored his 30th point when he passed up an inside shot to feed Valentine with a bounce pass for his career-high-tying fourth assist on an easy layup.
- And freshman forward Matt Costello, who had key back-to-back defensive rebounds during MSU's second-half-opening 13-3 run that increased its lead from 32-29 to 45-32.
- And, and, and...
Valentine used his own experience to describe how various Spartans rose to the occasion in a pressure-packed situation instead of unraveling.
"That's what big-time players do," Valentine said. "They don't freeze up; they make plays. That's what I want to be, so why freeze up and play bad."
Valentine responded by scoring a 13-game-high nine points and equaling his personal record for assists with six. He also had six rebounds.
"I felt like it was, `Bring it on,' " Valentine said. "I'm not going to back down and say, `Oh crap, Keith's gone, we're done.' We still had players come in, Trav (Trice), Gary, me, B.J. (Dawson), who are good at handling the ball, too. The world's not over. I'm not saying Keith isn't a big asset to the team, but we can handle it if he goes down."
Payne made his act of contrition by pulling out all the stops. His block of Tiger forward D.J. Stephens' attempted dunk, pinning the ball against the backboard, is a strong candidate to make the "One Shining Moment" wrap-up video shown after the national championship game.
And if he keeps playing the way he did, he may be there to watch it, according to Memphis coach Josh Pastner. Payne followed up the block with a jump shot on the other end to increase MSU's advantage to 52-37 with 9:01 remaining.
"I thought he was the X-factor," Pastner said. "There's no question he's a pro. If he plays like that every night, they're going to the Final Four."
Said Payne, "After the Valpo game, I felt that I didn't play as well as I should have, and so at the end of the game I came in an apologized. I told them I wouldn't let that happen again. My goal is to try to be as consistent as I can throughout this tournament and if that happens, then you know, it's going to happen."
Harris credited his teammates for getting him into a zone. Harris made 6 of 9 shots from the field and was 4-for-7 from 3-point range.
"They were able to find me when I was open, and had confidence in me, and I was able to knock down the shot," he said.
Although the Spartans committed 18 turnovers - Memphis had a 20-2 record when it forced 15 or more - they adapted seamlessly on the fly, especially when they were confronted with a triangle-and-two defense.
"They did the same thing they did against Saint Mary's, which is deny the point guard the ball," Costello said. "They denied Keith the ball, so we had to play off that. We knew (the extra defender on Appling) wasn't going to help, so we exploited it and worked around it.
"We have guys who can make plays and step up during big moments. When we're going through a tough time, we normally come out of it. We showed that again today and ended up blowing them out."
For the Spartans to advance to the Elite Eight, they will have to defeat the winner of Sunday's Duke-Creighton game in Indianapolis on Friday.
Izzo may not know who the next Spartan star will be, but he'd much rather coach this Hydra than have to face it.
"That's why I say we're a tough out, because even the head coach doesn't know who to expect it from all the time, so I don't know why the opponent would," Izzo said. "But I was pleased with Keith's play. He was getting dogged and they were double-teaming him so he couldn't get the ball.
"Thank God we had enough other guys that rose to the occasion."