BROOKLYN, N.Y. – When you have the best team, you tend to find a way to win games. That fits Michigan State in Brooklyn on Saturday, and it wasn’t one factor but rather multiple ones that were behind the Spartans taking home the championship of the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic by knocking off pesky Oklahoma.
“We were a little bit slight of people, and even though it was disappointing and we played a little sporadic, it shows a little character that you can figure out a way to win a game,” said head coach Tom Izzo.
The Spartans have several good players, as evidenced against Oklahoma, but more important is that they know how to help each other and win. If one player is struggling, someone else is ready to take over. Adreian Payne a relative non-factor with foul trouble? Branden Dawson has a double-double with 18 points and ten rebounds while guarding multiple players through the course of the game. Keith Appling a so-so half? Denzel Valentine comes in and hands out five assists with no turnovers in the first half to keep them in it and then lead.
And that set the stage for Appling to take over in the second half while Gary Harris was less effective as he cramped up. He scored seven points in the first half with just two field goal attempts, both from long range, and Izzo didn’t want that. Appling obliged, and in the second half he was 7-10 from the field for 20 points to finish with a new career high of 27. More importantly, he did a lot of that damage once Oklahoma had rallied to within 57-53. He had a conventional three-point play and a dunk for a personal 5-0 run, a short jumper after an Oklahoma three-point play, and two more short jumpers and another three-point play late to answer more Sooner rally attempts.
The tournament MVP, Appling was far more effective going to the basket, hitting shots close to the basket even in traffic.
“What I like about him is he took over under control,” said Izzo. “I told him, he cannot settle for threes. He got in the lane, he made some acrobatic shots, he’s a phenomenal athlete, he made some good decisions.”
Appling doesn’t get nearly as much pub as other Spartans like Harris or Payne, but he is no slouch, and he might be their most important player. It was evident against Kentucky in the Champions Classic, a win he was instrumental in with 22 points and eight assists. Saturday night further showed it.
“Once I got back in, I just wanted to be as aggressive as I possibly could to make things happen for our team to get the momentum shifted towards our way,” said Appling.
Harris, had a fine first half with 14 points before cramping up in the second half and being limited. They’ll take that over his shoulder issues that he played with last year as he won’t miss any time from it. Dawson was the one player who was consistent for the entire game, at times even guarding Oklahoma’s Cameron Clark after he got off to a hot start.
“He’s a mismatch no matter who we’re playing,” Appling said of Dawson. “He can guard one through five, so everything he does for us is big.”
Izzo said he thought his team was going against their identity when Oklahoma ran out to a 22-11 lead. The Sooners were all over them at both ends of the floor and helped by the hot start from Clark, who went on to score a career-high 32 points. After that stretch, the Spartans were at times as dominant as they’ve been all season long. Izzo put some of the team’s inconsistency on himself, noting that he feels it’s on him to make these stretches of dominance longer than they had on Saturday night.
“We’re not a pretty boy team, I don’t want to be a white collar team,” said Izzo. “We were that way the first ten minutes, and hopefully we’ll learn a lesson.”
Michigan State was clearly the best team in Brooklyn, but they are continuing to play like a team that belongs in the conversation for best team in the nation. They haven’t let up since the big win over Kentucky, taking care of business against Columbia and Portland before coming to Brooklyn for two more wins. Izzo will work to get more out of them, especially since they know they’re getting everyone’s best shot now that they’re atop the polls.