(Shawn Windsor) The beginning was unwatchable. Again.
Blame the malady on indifference if you wish, the coach might agree with you. How else to explain another flat-footed opening engagement against an inferior opponent?
Whatever motivational ploy the Michigan State used Friday night to get itself going out of the gate against Virginia Tech didn’t work Saturday night against Oklahoma.
The Sooners came out with something to prove. The Spartans did not. They won anyway, 87-76, despite falling behind by double digits midway through the first half in the finals of the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic. And despite building an 18-point second-half lead, only to fritter it away with turnovers and missed free throws.
“Usually we do the punching,” said Tom Izzo, “tonight we got punched, almost KO’d for a while there. We got back in the fight.”
They might not have were it not for Keith Appling, whose three-pointer in the first half ignited a run for MSU and whose three-point play in the second half stopped a run for Oklahoma.
That driving lay-up and ensuing free throw began a run of seven consecutive points for Appling. He finished with 27 – a career high. He scored many of them down the stretch, driving into the lane, tossing acrobatic floaters.
“I told him not to settle for threes,” said Izzo. “He took over under control.”
A good thing for MSU, because Adreian Payne (four points) struggled to find his shot and playing time – foul trouble kept him on the bench for long stretches.
Appling knew that with his senior teammate in a funk it fell to him. Izzo told him to “go get the ball … it was on my shoulders to kind of turn things around,” said Appling.
That effort helped secure the game. It was the Spartans to win in the first place because of a Appling-ignited deluge the last 11 minutes of the first half, when MSU played inspired, dominant basketball.
A stretch, Izzo said, “where I thought we played as well as we have all year.”
That run started with a three-pointer from the corner from the senior point guard. Appling knew he needed to take it. He’s learned that during his evolution in East Lansing the last three years – when to pass, and when to get a bucket.
Against the Sooners, the Spartans needed both. When Appling hit the shot MSU trailed by 11. At half, MSU was up by 14.
Gary Harris made some perimeter shots and attacked the rim. Branden Dawson scored on putbacks and lobs. Travis Trice came in to help match the Sooners’ quick backcourt.
“(Dawson) played his best game for us,” said Izzo.
He finished with 18.
The Spartans pushed its lead to 18 early in the second before Oklahoma’s Lon Kruger – Illinois’ former coach – called for a full-court trap. MSU didn’t handle it well.
A couple of turnovers and a few missed free throws and the Sooners cut the lead to four. Then Appling took over — driving into the lane after pump-faking, hitting floaters, getting to the free throw line, pushing the break and weaving through traffic and tomahawking to finish. The flurry pushed the lead back to 12, before a bevy of fouls sent the Sooners to the line and helped them cut the lead to four once more.
“It was ugly,” said Izzo, talking about his team’s finish, but also about the slugfest the game became. “But I’m gonna find a way to enjoy it, because we don’t do a lot of this.”
Win early season tournaments, that is. MSU hadn’t won one since 1998.
“Give us credit for responding,” he said.