In a frustrating, nerve-wracking, but ultimately successful effort, Michigan State held off unheralded Boise State in the Breslin Center on Tuesday. No one expected Tom Izzo's perfect non-conference home record in November to be in any danger against the Broncos, who came in as solid underdogs: KenPom.com had it as a >90% chance of an MSU win. But riding a combination of aggression, tenacity and a solid offensive scheme, Boise almost squeaked out the most improbable of victories.
The game was fairly close for most of the first half, with Boise State taking the lead at 4-3 and not relinquishing it until a Keith Appling three-pointer made it 27-24 MSU with a little over 5 minutes left till the break. The primary concern for Spartan fans at that point was a shoulder injury to freshman star Gary Harris, who left the game in the opening minute after getting hit on a hard pick. The Spartans proceeded to close out the half on a 7-0 run and I think most of us expected them to continue the momentum into the second half and pull away with a comfortable win. This. Did. Not. Happen.
Boise hung tough through the first part of the second half, never dropping more than 9 back, until a bizarre sequence with about 9 minutes left enabled them to grab the lead, thanks largely to 4 straight free-throw makes by guard Derrick Marks. The Broncos had been extremely aggressive all game in battling for rebounds and after Derrick Nix grabbed a Marks miss he had two Boise players draped all over him as he tried to secure the ball. The initial foul call was against Boise but after consulting the replay officials made it a dead ball foul against Nix for swinging his elbows. Since it did not appear possible for Nix to bring the ball down without contacting the two players, it was, charitably speaking, a questionable call. So questionable that Tom Izzo got a technical for protesting too demonstratively and Boise got four free throws plus the ball, which they turned into a sudden 5-point lead.
The Spartans managed to grind their way back, thanks to some clutch shooting from an expected source, Keith Appling, and an unexpected one, Denzel Valentine. A pretty Appling drive-and-one was enough to seal a tough win.
Give Boise State a ton of credit. They came in with a solid game plan and just didn't have the firepower, or enough fouls, to close it out. Their offense, which seemed to rely on three-point shooters spreading the floor while ball-handlers, primarily Marks, created off the dribble, exposed MSU's slow-to-help interior defense repeatedly. Unfortunately for Boise, a bad sequence by Marks, which saw him turn the ball over on one end and foul out giving Valentine an and-one at the other, effectively ended their hopes in this game.
As I write this, there's not a lot of data out there to pull from, as neither StatSheet.com or the official MSU site have their boxscores up. I can tell you it was a 66-possession game, which confirms that MSU's main problems were on defense. Specifically, MSU sent Boise to the line 29 times where they hit 23 shots, a 7-point edge over the Spartans. The key to victory for Michigan State was their robust 64% effective field goal percentage, fueled by a 20-26 (77%) night from inside the arc.
EDIT: Here is the Four Factors graph from StatSheet.com:
The individual hero was clearly Appling, who offset 4 turnovers with 22 points, 7 assists 5 defensive rebounds and 3 steals while playing all 40 minutes. Your second star was Valentine, who finished with 12 points, 4 boards and 2 assists in 29 minutes.
We're still waiting to hear about Gary Harris. There's no definitive word on what kind of injury it is or its severity, but Izzo was not optimistic in his post-game remarks, saying he thinks Harris will be out at least two weeks. With Travis Trice already out with a concussion, Izzo went with a 7-man rotation, featuring only cameo appearances from Matt Costello and Alex Gauna. Needless to say, that's not going to be a formula for long-term success this year. Fortunately there's still almost 6 weeks until the conference schedule begins. Next up: Oakland University on Friday.