Appling's dunk, Dawson's speech help turn game for MSU
Senior center Derrick Nix goes to shoot the ball during the second round of the Big Ten Tournament against Iowa on March 15, 2013, at United Center in Chicago, Ill. The Spartans beat the Hawkeyes, 59-56. Natalie Kolb/The State News
Chicago — The snarl said it all.
It crept across Keith Appling’s face as the junior guard made his way back down the court after a vicious, one-handed dunk produced pandemonium on the Spartans’ bench.
Even the best play of the night was more filthy than beautiful, fitting a game of grit over glitz, fight over finesse.
It was in that moment a battle of wills was definitively won, with Appling’s stare sending daggers —the Spartans might get outshot, but they weren’t about to get out-toughed.
Spurred on by their captain, the No. 8 MSU men’s basketball team (25-7) rallied from a 13-point second half deficit to stun Iowa (21-12), 59-56, and advance to face No. 10 Ohio State in the tournament’s semifinals Saturday afternoon.
“I ain’t seen that since high school,” Nix said of Appling’s dunk. “That was big. That was a momentum changer. It changed the momentum when he got up and it just shows his athletic ability, and I feel like he’s been holding out. He needs to start doing that a little bit more.”
“More,” was the theme of a plea from MSU’s senior center as he stood in front of his teammates at halftime with tears in his eyes and a 10-point deficit looming large.
“I got a little emotional, I got teary-eyed, because I felt like we were about to lose,” Nix said. “I just said, ‘I don’t get another chance.’ One of our goals is to try to win a tournament, so we just rallied around each other, came back and put it away.”
Yet it was another person who spoke to the team, with Tom Izzo standing off to the side, unsure of what to say, that left the head coach stunned.
“I told the team, ‘We’re not losing this game,’” sophomore guard/forward Branden Dawson said. “I didn’t want to go home and I know those guys didn’t want to go home, so I told them, ‘We need to pick it up.’”
The development shocked Izzo, who said it had been “a lot of years,” since he allowed his team to work through its problems on their own, the one other time coming during in a magical run in 2000.
Although not going as far as to predict history to repeat itself, Izzo said the decision in 2000 proved to be one of the best things he’s ever done.
“It was kind of emotional, not a rah-rah or yelling emotional, just a down emotional thing,” Izzo said of the mood at halftime Friday night.
“It was different because this was the first time with this team that I just shut up.
“I’ve got a saying: Learn to listen and listen to learn. I just listened, tried to learn something about my team and tried to see who was going to step up, and to my surprise, of all the people that stepped up for us was (Dawson), and it’s not in his character.”
Character proved to be Izzo’s defining takeaway from a game MSU trailed for nearly 36 consecutive minutes.
He had promised Spartan fans in the home finale one week ago that his team would show up in the Big Ten Tournament the way they had 31 other times this year, and sat at the podium lamenting his failure to deliver on his vow.
Still, in looking back on a game Izzo felt his team should have lost, he recognized the growth that was made.
“It builds character, what we did,” Izzo said. “Some people wonder, will it wear everybody out? It will wear the weak ones down. But the strong ones are going to keep moving forward and the strong ones are going to be able to sit in the locker room before a big game, and who knows who we are playing in the NCAA Tournament, and they will say, ‘Hey, we’ve … been there before and done it at halftime or two minutes to go in the game.
“It makes you stronger. It makes you better.”