Three hours before Saturday’s game against Loyola-Chicago, Gary Harris was ready. Setting his feet, checking his mechanics and firing shot after shot at the rims of Breslin Center, Harris wanted to be comfortable playing for the first time since his Nov. 20 shoulder injury without his shoulder brace.
When the time came for the freshman guard to rise with the No. 19 MSU men’s basketball team nursing a back-and-forth affair, Harris didn’t flinch. He didn’t grimace. He didn’t complain.
He was ready.
With the Spartans ahead by two points nearing the midway point of the second half, Harris took a pass from junior guard Keith Appling and drained a 3-pointer. Moments later came another. Shortly thereafter, he hit one more. In a game made up of small details and large moments, it was the moment that shifted the momentum toward the Spartans (8-2) in a 73-61 victory over the Ramblers (6-3).
Harris finished the game with a career-high 20 points and two rebounds on 7-for-11 shooting from the field. Asked what the biggest difference between this game and others he’s played since his injury, Harris saw the answer as a simple one: shots were falling.
“It always gives you confidence when you see a few (shots) go down,” Harris said after the game. “I think it just opens everything up after you see a few shots go down.”
Since returning from his injury on Nov. 28 against Miami (Fla.), Harris is averaging 12 points per contest in a little less than 25 minutes per game. His performance on Saturday could be considered a coming-out performance for a young guard who wasn’t expected to play for as many as three weeks after leaving the game in the opening minutes against Boise State.
Although it was advised Harris continue wearing his shoulder brace, Harris said it was something that needed to be removed to increase the fluidity of his game. After practicing for much of the week with it on, Harris decided to remove it on Saturday – no doubt a move that will make head coach Tom Izzo sweat.
“I don’t know if he realizes it yet, because he is a very unselfish kid,” Izzo said. “He took the brace off today which I’m not sure if I like. I might be fist-fighting the doctor tonight, but I think it is more mental than it is physical. Other than that first game when he was 1-for-7 from the 3-point line, he has shot about 40 percent, and he works hard at it.”
Harris attributed Saturday’s showing to the play of his senior center Derrick Nix and junior center Adreian Payne in the paint. Facing a double team for much of the game, Harris said the big men found a way to kick the ball out to the perimeter and find the team’s guards there.
By knocking down the shots with ball in hand, it also forced Loyola-Chicago to abandon the double team, at times, in order to improve defense along the perimeter. What resulted was the second-consecutive double-double by Payne with 14 points and 10 rebounds while Nix finished the game with eight rebounds and four points.
“Coach keeps saying we need to get in here and we need to make shots,” Harris said. “They were sagging off those guards and doubling in the post, but when we’re hitting shots, it opens everything up for our inside game.”
The Spartans now have a week without game action before returning to the floor at 9 p.m. on Nov. 15 against Tuskegee at Jenison Field House. The game is part of a nostalgic weekend of action at the Spartans’ former venue, which includes a Dec. 14 reunion game and a Dec. 16 game between the women’s basketball team and IPFW.