Let the healing embrace of victory begin. Michigan State employed fire from Adreian Payne, the return of Keith Appling, and a beyond frigid Wisconsin second half to win in East Lansing 58-43. Considering the late meaningless baskets and the Bo Ryan tempo and that's officially a blowout. In addition to Payne and Appling, numerous other Spartans chipped in including Gary Harris (11 second half points), Travis Trice (5 rebounds!), and Denzel Valentine (3 assists). Though it wasn't perfect, tonight featured the clicking cohesion that fans had waited to see as the post-season draws near.
The Play of the Night typified everything that came together to help the Spartans take apart the Badgers. With 13 minutes left in the game, leading 36-20, Adreian Payne drove to the basket for a dunk. He lost the ball and hung a split second too long on the rim causing his body to swing up. When he let go, Payne crashed all the way down to the Breslin floor and smashed hard onto his upper back. Instead of dying (which would have been a reasonable reaction), Payne somehow collected himself to not only secure the ball out of a scramble but next called a timeout to preserve the possession for Michigan State. That was amazing stuff and earned an unbridled hug from Tom Izzo.
It was more than just a great play but also propelled the team to the short run that really put the game away and crushed the Badger hopes. Travis Trice took advantage of sloppy ballhandling moments later and raced full-court for a layup. Keith Appling flipped another Wisconsin turnover into a +1 on the next possession. Despite Sam Dekker getting an easy layup to inch back to 41-22, the game felt over. Wisconsin would never get closer than the final margin of 16.
It's hard to put into words how bad Wisconsin's second half start was so I'll rely on numbers to tell the story. It took Bo Ryan's crew over 9 minutes to get their 4th and 5th points from a Ryan Evans 5-step shuffle layup. They missed 16 shots from the field over the same stretch and watched the 25-18 halftime score shift to 43-25. You can't pinpoint one man and basically every rotation player contributed to the 37% shooting night. Ben Brust hits 39% of his 3-pointers but his 2-6 showing from deep tonight was the equivalent of Ray Allen. Berggren 2-9, Evans 4-10, Bruesewitz 3-8, Dekker 3-7. Yuck. Combine abysmal shooting with getting outworked and you have the story of the game.
It's easy to get wrapped up in the second half of the game in which Michigan State ran away but the tone was established much earlier. Really, you could say it began after the first MSU missed shot when Nix used position and effort to steal an offensive rebound out of a pack of four Wisconsin players and score the game's first basket. "Hustle" was long the story as Adreian Payne hit the ground for the first time to avoid a turnover. He had just saved the ball once already by contorting himself to secure a defensive rebound headed out of bounds. Denzel Valentine rebounded aggressively from the wing and Travis Trice darted to steal a ball from Wisconsin off of the inbounds. There was nothing flat or lethargic about Michigan State tonight and the Spartans looked as "locked-in" as they have in a long time.
- Keith Appling - Fan-flipping-tastic. It was a rough start and Keith is still a long way away from being a reliable deep shooter but he was good enough tonight to be a plus player who can push Michigan State in the NCAA tournament. Keith ‘s midrange pull-up game was back and he showed flashes of the Kalin 2.0 basket-attacker to net 19 big points. If nothing else, questions about whether Appling's confidence is on the wane should lighten. He was aggressive and persistent with the ball in his hands.
- Adreian Payne - He really earned that Izzo hug. Payne, beyond the production, found some extra gear to be all over the court. If you've got a 6'10 forward who can hit jumpers and leap for rebounds suddenly extending himself accross the floor to make bonus plays, that's something special.
- Gary Harris - Props to Gary for hanging in there after first half where he couldn't buy a basket. As impressive as Harris is physically and with his skill set, it's his mental toughness that's so off the charts for a still 18 year-old freshman. Gary had some outstanding body control drives and pretty finishes that displayed his baking NBA skill set.
- Denzel Valentine - Excellent do-it-all game for Valentine. He played major bench minutes and shared the wing duties with Branden Dawson (both played 19). His rebounding was especially strong early and he showed solid judgment in when to sneak in his 3 points and matching 3 assists.
- Travis Trice - If MSU's point guard play continues at this level, the Spartans will see their ceiling rise in March. Travis helped offset Keith Appling's early struggles and hit a big-time momentum 3 to close the first half. He pulled more rebounds than he ever should and was a disruptive defensive force with 6 steals. Like Appling, a nice return to form on the night.
- Rough game again for MSU's lone senior. He struggled to finish baskets at the rim and ended up 2-10. In fairness, fans with good memories will recognize this as a problem that has reoccurred for Derrick throughout each of his four seasons at MSU. It'd still be nice to get more scoring out of the big man from Pershing High.
This was definitely much needed. Everyone is familiar with the story now. Indiana and Michigan tip off two hours before Michigan State and Northwestern. We should know soon after tip-off whether Michigan State is playing for a share of the conference title. In any case, tonight was a great step forward. Chris and I discussed how tonight's game would be a panic barometer. With Adreian Payne looking more and more like an NBA player, MSU's point guards hitting their strides, and reliable bench contributions, there's no need to go all Kermit the Frog. The Michigan State Spartans are in good shape. It's the 2012-2013 Big Ten season so the narrative can change in a half but we can celebrate this great victory tonight.