Bloomington, Ind. — Growing up a little more than an hour away from Assembly Hall, it was a pipe dream of many that Gary Harris would be a Hoosier.
Yet after taking his talents north and deciding to play at MSU, the love quickly faded. From the moment he walked on the court of the famed college basketball cathedral on Sunday, Harris had a target on his back.
Each time he touched the ball, the freshman guard was greeted by a red army of raucous jeers, boos and chants of “Gary sucks.”
However, it was a lesson in focus for Harris, who’s quickly becoming one of the Big Ten’s most exciting young players.
Fighting off an angry crowd with poise and composure, Harris finished with a team-high 21 points — one shy of his career-best — in the No. 13 Spartans’ (17-4 overall, 6-2 Big Ten) 75-70 loss to No. 7 Indiana (18-2, 6-1) on Sunday.
“To be honest, I didn’t really hear that much of anything really,” Harris said. “I was just so focused on the game and you kind of block everything else out.”
As the Spartans continue on in a stretch of 11 games — six of which come against ranked opponents — lessons learned in Bloomington, Ind., certainly aren’t lessons wasted.
Despite turning the ball over 19 times and losing junior guard Keith Appling for much of the game because of foul trouble, this team grew up in a heated road battle. They took one of the nation’s best teams down to the wire. They had a chance to win — multiple chances, in fact.
For head coach Tom Izzo, it was the outing he’s been waiting for, though not the outcome he would have liked.
“I said to my staff before the game, ‘We’re going to learn something about this team,’ and 90 percent of what I learned was positive,” Izzo said. “The one negative is when we get tired, we need to find the ability to suck it up.”
Harris wasn’t the only one with lessons to take away from Sunday’s loss to the Hoosiers.
With Appling in foul trouble, the Spartans were forced to turn to other scoring options before weathered legs folded to Indiana down the stretch.
Cognizant of his absence potentially costing the Spartans a chance to win, Appling grew in his new role as a team captain and apologized to the team in the locker room after the game.
“That last foul was just a frustration foul,” Izzo said. “He did not use his head at all. You don’t go after a guy from behind, especially a guy like (Victor) Oladipo who can jump out of the gym. That was not a very smart move, and he knows that.”
But as Izzo said, it was mostly positive.
Junior center Adreian Payne knocked down a personal single-game high three 3-pointers in an 18-point outing. By shooting 7-for-10 from the field, Payne not only is becoming a more effective option on offense, but also is making an impression of a guy with serious NBA potential.
“I was just trying to win the game,” Payne said. “Just (doing) whatever I could. I picked and popped and they was playing off of me. I (thought I could) knock down the shot and I shot it.”
Senior center Derrick Nix deserves a tip of the cap after holding the highly-touted Indiana forward Cody Zeller to just nine points in the game.
The Spartans will get another crack at the Hoosiers in 22 days at Breslin Center; another chance to seize momentum and potentially claim the Big Ten lead.
And if lessons turn into laurels, the Spartans could be a dangerous team next time around.
Dillon Davis is a men’s basketball reporter at The State News. He can be reached at email@example.com.