Spartans top Badgers, 58-43, keep championship hopes alive
Freshman guard Gary Harris fights for a loose ball with Wisconsin guard Ben Brust during the first half of the game, March 7, 2013, at Breslin Center. Justin Wan/The State News
There are those moments when you know it’s March.
A difficult rebound-turned-layup to open the game by senior center Derrick Nix. A hustle play by junior center Adreian Payne resulting in MSU getting a crucial rebound, signaling a signature Tom Izzo fist pump. A crucial 3-pointer off the tip of junior guard Keith Appling’s fingers igniting Breslin Center into a frenzy.
With an opening for a chance at a Big Ten championship, the No. 10 MSU men’s basketball team can spare no expense.
The Spartans (23-7 overall, 12-5 Big Ten) took another step in the right direction Thursday as they defeated No. 22 Wisconsin (20-10, 11-6), 58-43, snapping a season-high three-game losing streak.
“We played with some energy tonight and I think we even took a step forward because that’s the most important thing,” Izzo said. “I did think Wisconsin shot the ball poorly – they’re just a better shooting team than that. It was very uncharacteristic that they turn it over this time of year but a lot of times, a lot of teams look tired so I’m sure they’ll bounce back.
“I’m just pleased with the win and happy for Keith.”
Appling put an end to a long cold spell to lead the Spartans with 19 points, five rebounds and one assist to open up the first half of the regular season’s final two-game home stand on a winning note.
The performance allowed Izzo to welcome back a long-missing aspect of Appling’s game: a smile.
But for Appling, it meant more to get a victory headed into the final regular season game rather than breaking his own personal slump, though the latter certainly is welcomed.
“We needed it really bad but this was just one of those games where we were going to make things go our way,” Appling said. “Losing sucks; it’s as simple as that. We just didn’t want to experience another loss.”
The teams traded blows in the first half, maintaining a close margin across the midway point of the half.
With the Spartans maintaining a tight lead, a long-range jumper by junior center Adreian Payne put MSU up by five nearing the end of the half.
MSU ended the half with a pair of emotional 3-pointers — the first from Appling with 4:51 to play and the other a dramatic buzzer-beating make by sophomore guard Travis Trice.
The Spartans carried a narrow, 25-18 edge over the Badgers into halftime, setting up the makings of a competitive finish — as was the case when the Spartans topped Wisconsin, 49-47, in January.
However, once the teams returned from their respective locker rooms, the Spartans turned on the jets for a monumental second half run.
Starting with a layup by freshman guard Gary Harris, the Spartans opened up on an 18-4 run, highlighted with several buckets from Appling and Harris and overall strong play coming from all corners of the roster.
Harris struggled with his shot for a portion of the game, finishing on a 5-for-14 clip, but still was MSU’s second leading scorer with 11 points.
“I just gotta see it go down,” Harris said of the adjustments he made in the game. “It wasn’t falling for me and I just needed to find another way to get the ball in the basket.
The Spartans carried the offensive torch for much of the half, working out the frustrations of a three-game losing skid early and often on the Badgers. Down the stretch, MSU built a game-high 23 point lead, leading by double digits for the majority of the half.
Wisconsin guard Ben Brust was a bright spot for the Badgers in the second half, scoring seven consecutive Badger points in the waning moments of the game.
The Spartans now have won five consecutive matchups with the Badgers and head into the final regular season game with Northwestern on Sunday (6 p.m., Big Ten Network) with an opportunity to clinch a share of the Big Ten championship. With the win, the Spartans also clinch a first-round bye in the Big Ten Tournament, allowing them to start play on the tournament’s second day.
But Harris said the team can’t get ahead of itself with the Wildcats coming to town.
“We gotta take care of business against Northwestern,” Harris said. “That’s the main goal. If we don’t win there, we can’t win a conference championship. We just gotta focus on winning.”
Along with an MSU victory, the Spartans also will need No. 7 Michigan to defeat No. 2 Indiana at Crisler Center in Ann Arbor for a share of the conference championship.
Izzo said he will be honest with his team about their odds of playing for a conference title before the game. Even with a potential Michigan victory getting the Spartans closer to their goal, Izzo said the only team he’ll be rooting for this weekend is his own.
“If one of my guys pulled for their rival, (former MSU coach) Jud Heathcote would come out of his (grave) – well, he’s not in it yet — just kind of roll out bed,” Izzo said. “Jud would roll off his bed and abuse me.
“What I’m going to do on Sunday, I’m going to pull for Michigan State and I’m going to pull for Derrick Nix and then I’m going to get going to the Big Ten Tournament and see what we can do there.”