Chicago — In the college basketball world, desperation can be a strange feeling.
After defeating Northwestern in the opening game of the Big Ten Tournament, the No. 6-seeded Hawkeyes entered Friday’s game with No. 3-seeded Michigan State on the bubble of the Big Dance and aching for a chance to play on.
But with their backs against the wall late in the second half, the Spartans proved desperate enough to see another day.
Overcoming a sloppy first half, freshman guard Gary Harris led a second half charge, giving the Spartans their first lead of the game on a 3-pointer, eventually sending MSU (25-8) to a 59-56 victory over the Hawkeyes (21-12) at United Center in Chicago.
“We knew if we were to keep playing like (the first half), we were going to go home,” Harris said. “None of us are ready to go home yet.”
Three Spartans finished in double figures, led by junior center Adreian Payne, who finished the game with 18 points to go along with 10 rebounds in the winning effort. Harris ended up with 13 points while junior guard Keith Appling also chipped in 13 points.
It wasn’t a pretty game for the Spartans, who struggled to get a grasp on the Hawkeyes for much of the evening.
Starting with a 3-pointer by guard Roy Devyn Marble, the Hawkeyes opened the first half on 9-2 run, thoroughly stifling the Spartans’ offense in the process.
The lone bucket of the stretch came from junior guard Keith Appling, who got the Spartans on the board after more than three scoreless minutes to open the game.
Payne was the lone bright spot of the first half, accumulating a team-high nine points and six rebounds to head into halftime trailing 30-20.
Facing elimination at halftime, head coach Tom Izzo said an unlikely voice stepped up in the locker room to rally the troops – a voice of leadership Izzo has long been searching for.
“Of all people, the most vocal guy in our locker room was Branden Dawson,” Izzo said. “You know, he talked about the long road and we’re not losing, and then Keith jumped in. I said very little.
“This was my time to say, ‘OK, guys, going to see if you’re going to take your team over a little bit.’ And they did.”
Still, the second half picked right up where the first one left off as Appling couldn’t pick up a ball on an errant pass and turned into a bucket and a free throw by Mike Gesell.
The Spartans quickly responded with a Trice lob pass to find Payne for the alley oop and bring the game to 33-22. It was part of an 8-2 run by the Spartans, capped by a highlight one-handed redemption jam by Appling.
The Appling dunk was a major turning point for the Spartans, who appeared to be reenergized for a second half run. Appling said it was one of several big plays that picked up the team at both ends of the floor.
“Those plays really helped the momentum on our team,” Appling said. “I feel like it helped pick us up on the defensive end, and once we picked it up, we started to get stops and get it in the basket on the offensive end. Getting those plays really helped us.”
Hawkeye forward Zach McCabe hit a 3-pointer at the 12:15 marker to put Iowa up by double digits and maintain its control of the pace across the midway point of the half.
Facing elimination, the Spartans clawed back with a little help from Harris, who hit back-to-back buckets to make it 47-41 with a little more than seven minutes to play.
The Harris makes were part of a 22-2 run in the second half to give the Spartans the lead and hold it heading into the final possession.
Iowa battled back and a layup by forward Melsahn Besab brought the game within one for the Hawkeyes with less than a minute to play.
With the clock winding down, Harris made a pair of free throws to give MSU a three-point advantage and carry it into a timeout with nine seconds remaining.
Marble missed a shot to tie the game and it was rebounded by Payne to close out a scare in MSU’s Big Ten Tournament opener.
“After a disappointing halftime where I didn’t believe we were responding, those guys kind of took over, Branden Dawson, Travis Trice, every one of them made a hero’s play at the end, and it wasn’t just one guy,” Izzo said. “Those guys spearheaded it but every guy made a big play. And we found a way to luckily, luckily win.”
The Spartans now will play No. 2 seed Ohio State in the semifinals on Saturday after the conclusion of the 12:40 p.m. matchup between No. 1 Indiana and No. 4 Wisconsin.