Still Pretty Big
Despite no Big Ten title, Spartans beat Wildcats, look to NCAA
Junior guard Keith Appling about to come down after dunking the basket in the second half of the game. He contributed 16 points for MSU. The Spartans defeated the Wildcats, 61-71, Sunday, March. 10, 2013, at Breslin Center. Justin Wan/The State News
The temptation was there even before the opening tip.
If MSU could beat Northwestern and get some help from their in-state rivals, the Spartans could clinch their fourth Big Ten title in five years.
But Tom Izzo said days before the game that, for him, Friday night would be about two things: rooting for MSU and celebrating Derrick Nix in his final game on the Breslin Center court.
A few minutes after the game was underway, Izzo’s goals were all that was left; another Big Ten championship would not be coming to East Lansing.
Instead, the No. 10 MSU men’s basketball team (24-7 overall, 13-5 Big Ten) found itself locked in a tight one with the scrappy Wildcats (13-18, 4-14) to close out the regular season, ultimately hanging on for a 71-61 victory, sending Nix off the floor to chants of “Thank you, Derrick.”
And in a Senior Day ceremony after the game, the Spartans’ head coach took the opportunity to make his message emphatically clear once more.
“I want everybody in this building to understand one thing: you’ve got yourself a blue-collar coach that’s never been given anything,” Izzo said, his voice cracking with emotion. “And I don’t want anything from anybody else.
“I don’t want to get anything through the back door. I’m a ‘bust-it-right-through-the-front-door’ kind of guy and that’s the way we are. That’s the way you are. So don’t feel bad, because maybe a banner won’t be hanging this year, but memories will.”
Nix capped off his home career with 10 points, four rebounds and a career-high tying six assists, while junior guard Keith Appling led four Spartan scorers in double-figures with 16 points.
MSU improved to 18-3 this season when Appling scores 10 points or more.
The Spartans opened the scoring when Appling found Gary Harris early for a one-handed fast break dunk, two of the freshman guard’s 12 points.
But the Wildcats quickly responded with five consecutive points to take their first lead of the game.
It would be the only lead Northwestern would hold for the remainder of the half, as a 3-pointer from Appling ignited a 17-2 run to put MSU ahead by double-figures, 19-7, midway through the half.
MSU spent the rest of the period in front by a comfortable margin, as the lead swelled to as many as 13 points, before a late rally from the Wildcats cut the Spartans’ lead to seven, 33-26, at halftime.
Yet, when news of the team’s dashed title hopes made its way through the locker room at halftime, Izzo said there was no denying its effect.
With MSU reeling, the Wildcats pounced right out of the gates, using a 12-4 run to claw back into the game, pulling within three points.
Izzo said the news was especially tough for the Spartans’ senior captain, anxious to cap his career with one more Big Ten championship.
“He just said ‘Coach, I’m going to need some help,’” Izzo said of a conversation with Nix. “Of course it’s going to matter to them. So I tried to address it at halftime. Instead of hiding behind it, I tried to address it. But I even felt our crowd (dip). I’m sure they were all honed in.”
Needing a boost, MSU turned to the long ball, with back-to-back 3-pointers from guard Travis Trice and center Adreian Payne bumping the Spartans’ lead back up to nine points, 49-40, prompting a Northwestern timeout with 11:15 to go.
Yet the Wildcats refused to go away, putting together an 11-2 run, capped off by a dunk from center Alex Olah to tie the game at 53 with 5:44 remaining.
With his final game at Breslin Center hanging in the balance, Nix spoke to his teammates and brought the group back together.
“I just said ‘Come on man, we know we’re not going to win (the Big Ten), but we’re still playing for something,’” Nix said. “We’re playing for Big Ten Tournament and NCAA Tournament seeding and you’re playing for the program, so you can’t let that get you down.”
Behind the words of their captain, the Spartans closed strong, scoring 10 consecutive points to gain a double-digit lead with just more than a minute to go to put the game out of reach.
And with the regular season in the books, Izzo had one final message to the crowd, looking back on one of the toughest regular seasons he could remember, as well as ahead to postseason play, where unfinished business still remains.
“You should be prouder of this team than almost every team I’ve had because we went through a lot with this team, and they hung in there,” Izzo said.
“We weren’t always great, but we had no letdowns like the other top-15 teams. We didn’t get upset by anybody and we fought and scratched for everything we got.
“And just like last year, maybe we didn’t accomplish exactly what we wanted to at the end of the regular season, but 31 times your team showed up, 31 now. And next weekend, our ass is showing up, I promise you that. We’re showing up.”