The Spartans might not know who their leading scorer will be each night.
They might not know where they’ll finish in the crowded Big Ten.
They might even continue to be the “strangest” 16-3 team Tom Izzo has ever coached.
But one thing they know for sure — when the game is on the line, Keith Appling delivers.
The junior guard came through in winning time again Saturday night, scoring MSU’s final six points to carry the No. 18 Spartans (16-3 overall, 5-1 Big Ten) to a 59-56 victory over No. 11 Ohio State (13-4, 3-2).
The win gives MSU sole possession of first-place in the conference.
“I have a whole lot of confidence in myself. I’m a confident person in general,” Appling said. “That’s nothing that I have ever lacked, so that’s really nothing new to me. The more and more I continue to make plays late in the game, I continue to gain confidence in my abilities.”
It took everything Appling and the rest of the Spartans had to overcome the performance of junior forward Deshaun Thomas, who scored 28 of the Buckeyes 56 points, nailing seemingly every big shot he attempted.
Yet in the final seconds, it was sophomore guard Shannon Scott who attempted the final shot, missing the rim completely and sealing the win for MSU.
In a game that featured eight ties, six lead changes and a last-second shot that could have tied the game, head coach Tom Izzo said it was another “classic game” with Ohio State, one he was simply fortunate to win.
“I just look at it as it was a war and we survived it,” Izzo said. “We really fought in the last five minutes and (found) ways to win. As much as it might frustrate you, as it does me at times, it shows a little character that you can find ways to win. And right now, our program has found some ways to win.”
With the game tied at 50 with 2:59 remaining, the Spartans turned to junior center Adreian Payne, who converted a three-point play to put MSU back out in front.
Payne finished with 14 points and five rebounds and served as a spark for the Spartans after replacing freshman guard Denzel Valentine in the starting lineup.
After Evan Ravenel split a pair of free throws for the Buckeyes with 1:21 to go, Thomas added two free throws of his own to even the score at 53.
From there, Appling took over, beating Craft off the dribble for a go-ahead layup, finishing a fast break dunk to bump the Spartans lead to four, and adding two free throws with 7.9 seconds remaining to secure the victory.
“(This) could be a pretty big win,” Appling said. “Ohio State’s a good basketball team, they’re going to win a lot of games in this conference. But, like I said, we can’t get complacent. We have goals we want to accomplish and winning a Big Ten championship is one of them, so we still have to get better.”