One week ago, after a victory over Division II Tuskegee, Tom Izzo said he was excited to enter a “dogfight” every time his basketball team took the court the rest of the season.
Derrick Nix described it bluntly: “No more cupcakes.”
The Spartans’ head coach and senior captain got exactly what they expected Saturday afternoon, winning a hard-fought game over Texas 67-56, with Nix leading the way with a career-high 25 points, 11 rebounds and four steals.
Junior guard Keith Appling added 14 points, and junior center Adreian Payne chipped in 13 points and seven rebounds off the bench.
It was at halftime against Tuskegee that Izzo challenged Nix about not playing hard enough.
The harsh words motivated the senior center to secure his second career double-double in the second half of that game, a feat he’s now accomplished in two of the past three games.
For Nix, it all began on MSU’s first possession tonight, when a hook shot he’s been frustrated with at times softly floated through the net, prompting a smile and a yell from the Spartans’ big man.
“Once I made that first hook, and it went in, it was beautiful,” Nix said. “I just felt like I couldn’t miss.
The shot began a 12-2 run to give MSU an early lead, energized by the raucous return of the Izzone alumni.
Texas coach Rick Barnes said Nix’s play was the best single-game performance he’s seen from a big man this year.
“I’m sure he’d like to see us every night,” Barnes said of Nix. “We haven’t had anybody just dominate us the way he did today.”
But the Longhorns responded to MSU’s opening surge with a 10-1 run to recapture the lead, 14-13, a lead they would maintain for most of the rest of the first half, heading into the locker room up 33-28 at the first intermission.
The Spartans jumped on the Longhorns right out of the gates to open the second half, scoring eight consecutive points to take a lead they would never relinquish.
After Texas attempted more than double as many free throws as MSU in the first half, the tide swung the Spartans’ way, with MSU making 17-of-23 free throws in the final 20 minutes, while Texas only managed to hit 4-of-9 from the charity stripe.
But after Texas cut the deficit to one, 41-40, the game threatened to get away from the Spartans when Nix responded to having back-to-back shots blocked by slamming his hand on the ground and yelling some choice words at a referee, who promptly hit the center with a technical foul.
Nix apologized for what he said to the official and said he was most irate with freshman forward Prince Ibeh standing over him after the second blocked shot, describing it as “garbage.”
Yet once Texas sophomore guard Sheldon McClellan failed to connect on either of the technical free throws, the arena erupted, led by junior center Adreian Payne egging on the fans from center court.
“I’ve been a little sick. When I (would) start yelling, I’d start coughing, so I didn’t want to be too vocal,” Payne joked. “The key was the energy level and the intensity of the game.”
Izzo said although coaches don’t like technical fouls, fans love them, and the crowd helped MSU’s lead swell to as many as 10 points, as MSU scored eight straight and 13 of the next 17 points, capped off by five straight points from Nix.
Texas was able to cut MSU’s lead to two at one point, but never managed to get over the top.
“Nix and I have a love/hate relationship. I love to hate him sometimes,” Izzo said. “The hardest thing for anybody to do is take criticism. He has grown up enormously in the last two years — trust me. This year, those tantrums that used to happen on a regular basis, come very seldom now. He was locked in tonight.”
Payne matched the contribution of his fellow center in the second half, scoring 13 points and grabbing six rebounds in the game’s final 20 minutes, pairing with Nix as the Spartans’ driving force to victory.
No one was happier for Nix on his career night than Payne, who has said he believes the duo can play well alongside each other, and did so nearly flawlessly in the second half, leading Izzo to say “our inside guys were unbelievable.”
“I was extremely excited about it because he’s been working hard and just to think of everything he’s been through,” Payne said of Nix. “And it’s around Christmas. A good old Christmas present.”