The Michigan State Spartans came into tonight’s matchup almost certainly headed to the Palace of Auburn Hills. They had a great season so far and they were comfortable. Continuing Izzo’s amazing continuous streak of making the Big Dance was safe.
Iowa came in 21-11 and in desperate need of a major win to secure their spot in the dance. They were desperate and for the first 75% of the game Iowa played hungry and MSU content. Then something happened.
The Spartans with more depth on their bench that Iowa has in their starting five came alive. Izzo was calm while the Spartans imploded hoping, praying that this team without a leader all year could dig deep and find a way to win. He has led them a long ways, but now he took a step back. Finally his team responded without his help and they pulled off a 59-56 win.
Izzo said, “At halftime I did for the first time in a lot, a lot of years. I just said, where are we going to go. So I just leaned up the wall and asked whoever wanted to talk, and that’s when Dawson said some things and that’s when Keith said some things and [Derrick] Nix said a few things. It was kind of an emotional, not a rah-rah or yelling emotional, just a down emotional thing.”
It conjured memories of great teams in the past. Izzo remembered fondly saying, “It was interesting for me, because I had done that once in 2000 with [Mateen] Cleaves and [Morris] Peterson, and it was one of the better things I had done. Embarrassed to say I didn’t have any answers at halftime, but I’m proud to say that I let them make the decision and maybe they grew up a little bit.”
I Tweeted during the game that it was the most reserved I had seen Izzo ever. He agreed. “No, it was different, because this was the first time with team that I just shut up. I didn’t say a lot on the sideline. I just said, I’ve never seen Gary Harris be like that, you know, except first game of the year where it just seemed like he was — and I know he cares.”
Izzo’s demeanor started to set in after the first half. He recounted for us, “So at halftime, when I say I didn’t do much, my (indiscernible) will probably be met, didn’t earn my money at halftime. I’ve got a saying: Learn to listen and listen to learn; I just listened, tried to learn something about my team and tried to see who was going to step up, and to my surprise, of all the people that stepped up for us was BJ, and it’s not in his character, you know.”
It isn’t his style to be quiet, but he enjoyed it tonight. “So I think that was kind of cool for me. I don’t know how it worked, but we didn’t need a loss. Disappointed because now I can’t say we went 32 games not showing up, because we didn’t show up the first half. But I can say 98 percent of this year, we’ve shown up every game, and I’ll look at this as an out-of-body”
Keith Appling admitted that at the half they knew things had to change. “We just had to focus in. You know, we knew we made too many mistakes and we just had to come together as a team and start picking up our play.”
Give the desperate Hawkeyes credit. The usually physical Spartans were on the receiving end for once of some good physical play. Adreian Payne said, “This game was very physical, as you can see I got busted in the lip all four times. You know, it was just a physical game. They played really hard and aggressive.”
Keith Appling echoed his thoughts, “You know, that had to be one of the most physical games I ever played in. Those guys were all over the place each and every possession. Luckily we were able to pull it off at the end.”
The Hawkeyes saw the physicality from another prism. Eric May said, “Yeah, Michigan State is always a physical game. We knew that coming in. The key is to match their physicality, and I think we did a good job of that. They are a tough team, but you have to really sustain that the whole game, though.”
Devyn Marble added, “I played this team freshman year in the Big Ten Tournament. That was the most physical game I’d ever been in until today with the same team. So usually when we play each other, it’s a very physical game.
If there was an MVP of this game he didn’t wear a jersey, but he did a wear a suit and tie. That would be future Hall of Fame coach Tom Izzo. For all the complaining Spartan Nation makes every year with his tough scheduling tonight once again proved it brilliant.
Iowa in a big venue and big game melted under the pressure down the end. The Spartans battled hard even when they weren’t’ playing well and found a way to win. Keith Appling in particular.
I asked Payne what it means to this team that Keith Appling even when he isn’t playing well never stops playing hard. “Yeah, you know, coach always said, if the head dies, the body lies. Keith is our head, and he didn’t die. He just kept on playing. He brought a lot of energy and he led us, really his body language, and everything showed.”
I asked Appling about how far he has come. Early in his career he wouldn’t quit, but would get down on himself and be non-existent. So what has changed? He smiled and said, “I guess I am growing up.”
When I told Izzo what Appling said, I mentioned how desperately he would have loved to hear those sentiments even sooner and he smiled and agreed.
Izzo said of Appling maturation and hustle that, “Keith is one of the toughest kids I have, and that’s what I said earlier. You’re all right. You’ve evaluated him very well, the 50/50 balls, the loose balls, Keith got some of those. But his dunk was a big play. It did kind of get us going.”
He went on to say, “And so I did say if Keith isn’t playing well, it’s hard for us to be good. He doesn’t have to be great but he has to be pretty solid and steady and tonight he did a pretty good job defensively.
We just, I don’t know — I loved Adreian’s comment, quicksand. Gary [Harris] the first half, I think he was nailed to the floor. I don’t know why. The last time I saw that was in Germany.”
Izzo reflected back, “So maybe I’m not appreciating these young guys some of them getting a little bit — four turnovers, maybe that’s some of it, and I hate to say it. But it’s good to have a rock and he’s my rock. He’s a tough kid and he hung in there.”
But you still can’t get away from the MVP of this game being Izzo and his scheduling. He agreed that it had an impact for this type of game. “Well, I think definitely — at halftime, of all people, the most vocal guy in our locker room was Branden Dawson. You know, he talked about the long road and we’re not losing, and then Keith jumped in. I said very little.”
He went on to add, “This was my time to say, okay, guys, going to see if you’re going to take your team over a little bit. And they did. It was slowly, and then we came back, cut it to seven and made a couple more — hate to use this word, but dumb, foolish, idiotic — if I could four-letter it — we did them all.
We are solid and we are steady and all of a sudden we are double-teaming the center at the top of the key and they give the guy a wide-open three. We just did so many things that I just — it’s not characteristic of us, and that’s what I’m going to have to live with tonight.”
In the end what matters is that the Spartans survive and advance. You can’t help but feel bad for Coach Fran McCaffery of the Hawkeyes. He said it best after the game, “I’ve been doing this a long time. I’ve coached in a lot of games. I’ve coached in a lot of tournaments. I’ve coached favorites; I’ve coached underdogs. This team deserved a better fate tonight.”
I agree, but it doesn’t matter. Izzo’s scheduling one him another big March game and I bet there are a few more left this season. Izzo once again proved his worth, as the Spartans left with a win, thanks to him.