ATLANTA, GA: Georgia Dome
Down 7 with 12:02 left, the Spartans looked in a bit of trouble as the Kansas Jayhawks took their biggest lead of the night on a 3-pointer from Naadir Thorpe. But from that point, the Spartans took over and closed the Jayhawks out on a 29-19 run to win 67-64 behind a big time closing effort from Keith Appling.
MSU came out with much more juice early than they had on Ramstein Air Force base Friday night, and traded spurts with Kansas early behind Branden Dawson and Gary Harris, but trailed the 7th ranked Jayhawks 35-32 at the Half in a game that got a little ugly as some of these early season marquee matchups can.
As the 2nd Half developed, it looked at a few different times like Kansas might pull away a bit, notably when Adreian Payne picked up his 3rd foul at just the 15:26 mark. Kansas then stretched a 40-38 lead out to 7 before things turned Green for good behind an impressive Spartan stretch run.
A huge 3 from Gary Harris at the 8:30 mark tied it up at 49, and the MSU bench exploded with the belief that they were back in it for the duration. As things went back and forth up the floor, it led to a rather tight final 3:30 of play. Derrick Nix, Dawson, and Harris all contributed as MSU started to take the game to Kansas on the Offensive end, and started to stiffen up in their own end. Bill Self admitted after the game that his Jayhawks looked “a little soft late” against the Spartans, and simply “ didn’t run (their) Offense down the stretch.”
With 2:07 left, Dawson, who had a pretty decent night other than 5 turnovers, hit two very key Foul Shots to put the Spartans up a possession at 62-59. On the other end, a couple Jayhawk Foul Shots cut the lead to 62-61. Then Keith Appling took over. Appling hit the game’s biggest shot yet in the form of a triple to push MSU up 65-61, with Spartan Nation’s Georgia contingent fired up and smelling the kind of win that can jump start a season.
Kansas missed a jumper on their next trip, and MSU looked for Appling to extend the lead again. As he drove to the basket, he looked to be fouled, but there was no whistle as the ball came loose and KU went the other way. The Jayhawks looked to Guard Ben McLemore, who got it deep in MSU territory. Guarded closely by Denzel Valentine, McLemore got the Freshmen a bit off balance and went up to hit a shot as he was fouled. The Free Throw suddenly cut it to 65-64 MSU with 50 seconds left.
After Appling called a Time Out for Tom Izzo and company to pick the final set they wanted, the ball ended up going back into Appling’s hands as the shot clock fell below 10. Appling looked poised but assertive as he dribbled in deep, found space, and layed it in to put MSU ahead for good 67-64.
A last second and rushed 3-point heave from KU’s Travis Releford wasn’t close, and the Spartans had completed the statement making comeback win to get the season off and moving to a big start.
After the game, Tom Izzo said he was “proud of Keith,” and felt like he’d begun to “fall in love with the game a little more” in an off season that featured more Appling film study, and obviously taking a lot of shots. The shooting work showed up tonight as he went 6 for 9 and nailed all three of his 3-point attempts. More importantly, Appling showed the late game mentality and leadership needed to close out big games.
Kansas is hopefully the first of many games Keith Appling closes out for MSU in the next two years, and it’s sure to be a big confidence boost to do it against Kansas on a national stage with the entire sport watching. For a game that looked like it might be a few minutes away from turning into a convincing Kansas win, this new Spartan team surprised Bill Self, the Kansas Jayhawks, and maybe even themselves with their impressive final minutes.
There’s still a lot of work to do in the non-conference and players to get healthy. There’s still too a long way to go before the Big Ten is decided, but tonight the Spartans kicked things off where the Final Four will return next April with the kind of win a team can build an identity on.
Let me hear about it inside the Phalanx Forum and @JPSpartan