Spartans defeat Valparaiso, 65-54, in NCAA Tournament opener


AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — By this point, Derrick Nix knows what’s on the line.

Playing in the final postseason of his career, the senior center told members of the media this week he plans to “spill it every night” in an attempt to finish with a national championship and possibly increase his NBA Draft stock.

After one game, Nix has stayed true to his word.

In a standout performance, Nix led the No. 3 seed MSU men’s basketball team (26-8) to a 65-54 victory against No. 14 seed Valparaiso on Thursday at The Palace of Auburn Hills in Auburn Hills, Mich. Nix finished the game with a double-double, tallying 23 points and 15 rebounds in the winning effort.

“The end is here and he doesn’t have an answer where he’s going next — two months from now,” head coach Tom Izzo said. “When you’re in a junior high, you know you’re going to high school. When you’re in high school, you’re already signed with a college, you know where you’re going.”

“Well, (I told him) play well and maybe that will help determine what you’re going to do.”

The start of the first half was by no means a pretty display of basketball by either side.

The Spartans shot just 2-for-7 from the floor with three turnovers in the first five minutes of action, allowing Valpo to stay close. But the Crusaders struggles shooting were well documented, hitting just 6-of-26 shots in the half, including a stretch of 10 consecutive missed shots.

After a slow start that saw the Spartans shoot 5-for-16 from the field in the first 10 minutes of the half, the team regrouped during a media timeout at 11:24. During the timeout, sophomore guard Travis Trice said the team was asked to raise its intensity at both ends of the floor in order to build a lead.

“We just really said we wanted to pick up the pressure defensively and stay focused on offense because we had gotten lackadaisical and had turnovers,” Trice said. “We really needed to get it inside and that’s where Nix really went to work tonight.”

With the game tied 8-8 coming out of the timeout, the Spartans started on a 10-2 run, which snowballed into a 27-10 stretch to close out the first half with a 35-18 lead. The sequence was highlighted by several stellar lob dunks to awaken a slightly-above half capacity crowd at The Palace of Auburn Hills.

Starting with a layup by Nix in the second half, the dominance continued for the Spartans. After finishing as the leading scorer of the first half, Nix hit four of the team’s first five shots in the second half to increase the lead.

The Spartans opened the second half on a 14-4 run and refused to take the foot off the pedal for the rest of the game.

The loudest crowd reaction of the day came when freshman forward Matt Costello blocked a shot of Valpo’s Vashil Fernandez just across the midway point of the half to send the crowd into a frenzied cheer.

“It worked out well when I rotated and got in the right position,” Costello said. “I was glad to get that to counteract some of the other things I messed up on today.”

Valpo continued to claw in the game down the stretch, at one point knocking down eight straight points to narrow the deficit. But despite a strong showing by guards Erik Buggs and Ben Boggs, the Crusaders couldn’t overcome a poor shooting day where they finished at 35.2 percent from the field.

Valpo head coach Bryce Drew said the team’s poor shooting was a major factor in the loss but he was content with the effort the team put forth against a challenging Spartan team.

“I was very pleased as a coach with the looks that we got,” Drew said. “I thought we got some quality looks. And like we told our guys, sometimes we can’t control shots going in. We can control our effort, we can control our character, and I thought over the 40 minutes, our effort and character made their coach proud today.”

A 3-pointer by Appling with 3:20 to play was a huge dagger to any momentum the Crusaders could muster, as the Spartans cruised to a victory in their first NCAA Tournament game. Appling had two 3-pointers in the second half and three overall in the game, which he said was important when the defense was focused on Nix and junior center Adreian Payne in the paint.

“Those were very important,” Appling said. “I mean, one of the gameplans was to go inside and let the bigs make something happen, but each and every time they drove, they made the right play and kicked it out to myself and Gary.”

Three Spartans finished the game in double figures in scoring including Nix, Appling and freshman guard Gary Harris.

The Spartans move on to third round of the NCAA Tournament and will play the winner of St. Mary’s and Memphis on Saturday.

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