When the game is on the line, MSU head coach Tom Izzo has few question where the ball belongs.
A slick pass here. A layup there. And not to mention, pure ice in the veins at the free throw line.
That’s the type of performance Izzo’s come to expect from junior guard Keith Appling late in games, a time he frequently refers to as “winning time.”
Following a sluggish first half against Illinois, Appling was the catalyst of a second half run that gave the No. 13 MSU men’s basketball team (18-4 overall, 7-2 Big Ten) a 80-75 come-from-behind victory over Illinois (15-7, 2-6) on Thursday at Breslin Center.
“I really don’t have to get motivated for crunch time,” Appling said. “It’s crunch time. You should always be motivated — that’s winning time. That’s part of the game where I focus in the most.”
Appling neared his first career triple-double, finishing the game with a team-high 24 points to go along with eight rebounds and seven assists. The Detroit native was one of four Spartans in scoring double figures including 14 apiece by freshman guards Denzel Valentine and Gary Harris and 12 points by sophomore guard/forward Branden Dawson.
Even as questions lingered whether the game was personal for Appling after fouled out earlier in the week in a loss to then-No. 7 Indiana, Appling insisted that wasn’t the case.
Either way, senior center Derrick Nix said the game reminded him of several of Appling’s best games, dating back to their time together at Detroit Pershing High School.
“The best I seen him play was in the state championship when he had 50,” Nix said. “I think he played well against Florida last year and he played very well against Kansas this year so ya’ll gotta pick from the three.
“Keith came up for us big. He came through. His willpower damn near willed us to a win and we appreciate that a lot.”
The Spartans started out the game without Nix, who Izzo sat out for missing a class on Friday and a tutor appointment on Monday. It was just the second time this season the Spartans started a game without Nix, who didn’t get in until the 10:38 mark of the first half.
Without their senior leader, the Illini forced MSU to turn the ball over four times in the opening minutes to jump out ahead of the Spartans early.
More than the score, Izzo said his team played sluggish in the first half and struggled to maintain the level of effort he expects on a daily basis.
“To shoot 60 percent for the game and out rebound a team by nine and play that poorly, the numbers lie,” Izzo said. “I’m very pleased and I told you guys we have been taking small steps forward, but we took a giant step backwards in the first half.”
After going into halftime trailing 37-27, the Spartans regrouped for a second half surge.
Starting with a layup by Valentine, MSU spread out the offense, allowing them to open the second half on a 14-0 run. The run was highlighted by a 3-pointer by Harris, which gave the Spartans their first lead of the game — a lead which they never surrendered.
The Spartans held Illinois without a field goal for the first six minutes of the second half and played cautious against one of the conference’s most frequent perimeter shooting teams.
With the Fighting Illini battling down the stretch, Appling found Dawson on a smooth alley oop to extend the Spartans’ lead to five. Appling also hit a layup with 45 seconds to play to seal the deal and spend the Spartans away with a victory.
“The coaches and my teammates, they have the utmost trust within me so whenever the game is close and it’s down the stretch, they try to get the ball in my hand and I try to make something happen,” Appling said.
Yet with another inconsistent showing from his team, Izzo wasn’t exactly singing his team’s praises during his postgame press conference.
Although he gave credit to some players on his team, including Appling, Izzo said his team still has work to do in the way of a complete effort.
“It’s hard as a coach to give your team credit,” he said. “You wonder why coaches never give their team credit because too many other people are on Twitter are giving them credit and some guys can’t handle it.
“I thought we had some guys who showed they couldn’t handle success and it bothers me and shows our lack of leadership. We’re going to have to grow and gain from it.”
The Spartans will have a crack at redemption from an earlier season loss, as they next take the floor Feb. 6 against Minnesota (7 p.m., Big Ten Network).