It was one of the scariest moments of Keith Appling’s life, if only for a moment.
With a little more than two minutes to play in the first half of Friday’s game against Oakland, the junior guard took a wrong step off a defender, causing an instant influx of pain darting up his leg. The pain encompassed his right ankle, causing Appling to slump over and writhe for nearly a minute before limping back to the bench.
Just three days after losing freshman guard Gary Harris to a shoulder injury in addition to an earlier concussion sidelining sophomore Travis Trice, it would have been natural for head coach Tom Izzo’s heart to skip a beat at the risk of losing another key player from his lineup.
But even before Appling returned to the bench to be looked at by trainers, Izzo knew he could rest easy at the notion of an injury to his star point guard.
“I didn’t see what happened but one thing I don’t worry about is that is one tough hombre,” Izzo said. “I would’ve told him the same thing I told (Mateen) Cleaves, you know. ‘Have a sprained ankle, just do it after the game. We don’t have time for it right now.’ And I think he would have obliged. I love that about Appling; he’s tougher than nails.”
After having his ankle re-taped in the locker room at halftime, Appling returned to the floor for warmups, earning the affirmation of toughness from the 18th year head coach. It’s a testimony to the work of Appling, who gradually has grown into the leader of the Spartan offense, while also proving formidable on the defensive side of the ball.
Appling finished with a game-high 20 points in 38 minutes of action to go along with six rebounds and two assists as the No. 15 Spartans defeated Oakland 70-52.
Even is assessing the momentary seriousness of the injury, Appling said he had a strong desire to return to the floor and finish the game against the Golden Grizzlies.
“No matter what, whatever was wrong with my ankle, I wasn’t gonna not come back in the game,” Appling said. “We had a game to finish playing and I wanted to be a part of it.”
It was marquee game on Friday for Denzel Valentine.
Not only was the freshman guard able to secure his first career double-double in a victory over Oakland, but he did so against his older brother and Golden Grizzlies’ forward Drew Valentine. The younger Valentine scored 10 points to go along with 10 rebounds and six assists, besting his brother, who finished with five points and four rebounds on the evening.
Aside from games in his family’s driveway and scrimmages during their time at Lansing Sexton High School, it was the first ever organized game between the Valentine brothers, a fact which Denzel noted after the game.
But even after watching his brother play for years at various levels of the game — calling him one of his biggest influences in life and in basketball — there were moments that made the matchup a surreal experience for both him and his family.
“When he took me off the dribble and I fouled him, I was like,‘Man, this is crazy. I just fouled him and he’s at the free throw line,’” Denzel Valentine said. “I just looked in the crowd and there was a lot of people and it was just crazy to play in front of that crowd and look over to my parents and all of my family that was here. It was a great experience and a great moment from my family.”
The moment was not lost on Izzo, who formed a relationship with their father and former MSU basketball player Carlton Valentine, when Izzo was an assistant coach for the program in the late 1980s.
Having watched both Valentine brothers grow up around his program for many years, Izzo said even though it was a game neither team enjoyed because of what it meant to both sides, there was respect between the two players on the court.
“You know what, that kid Drew, he’s just a hell of a kid and he’s mentored Denzel,” Izzo said. “I didn’t see anybody going at anybody and I mean that as respectfully as I can say it. There’s such a respect; Carlton and Kathy (Valentine) have done an incredible job with those two kids.”