Gary Harris (Getty Images)
It was then that Gary Harris and Branden Dawson came to Michigan State's rescue.
With top big man Adreian Payne sidelined sidelined by a sprained right foot and star point guard Keith Appling ailing after injuring his wrist earlier in the game, Harris and Dawson came alive just in time to help the Spartans avert an upset. The duo spearheaded a game-changing 21-6 spurt that turned Michigan State's five-point deficit into a somewhat comfortable 71-66 victory.
Harris scored 11 of his game-high 24 points in the final 11 minutes, sparking the run with a pair of free throws and a game-tying 3-pointer that energized the slumbering Spartans. Dawson had five of his 13 points during the run and finally began playing with the urgency Tom Izzo had been demanding the whole night.
Michigan State's comeback kept the Spartans (18-1, 7-0) unbeaten in Big 10 play heading into a potential first-place showdown with rival Michigan this weekend. It also dealt a blow to an Indiana team that is in jeopardy of winding up in the NIT just a year after it landed a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Having lost four starters from last season's Big Ten title team including lottery picks Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo, Indiana knew a dropoff was inevitable this season. Sophomore point guard Yogi Ferrell and senior wing Will Sheehey returned, but the Hoosiers were counting on too many freshmen or unproven veterans to contend for a second straight Big Ten regular season crown.
Even with its youth and inexperience, however, Indiana probably expected to be a tick or two better than 12-7 overall and 2-4 in the Big Ten at this point. The Hoosiers lost to every significant non-league opponent they faced besides Washington before dropping four of their first six in Big Ten play.
Indiana appeared to come of age last week in a stirring victory over previously unbeaten Wisconsin, but the Hoosiers again showed their youth by coming out flat at home against lowly Northwestern and falling 54-47. They atoned for that performance with a spirited effort in East Lansing on Tuesday night, but they could not hold off Michigan State's final charge.
Freshman big man Noah Vonleh was Indiana's best player once again, contributing 13 points and 13 rebounds and sinking six of his eight shots. He probably would have scored more without Payne there to defend him but Indiana struggled to consistently get him the ball.
With Sheehey sitting out with an injury and Evan Gordon coming off the bench, much of the perimeter scoring burden rested on Ferrell. He scored 19 points but on just 4 of 13 from the field and he did not get enough help.
The good news for Indiana's quest to return to the NCAA tournament is that the Hoosiers are now done with Michigan State for the rest of the regular season. The bad news is that doesn't mean the schedule eases all that much.
Up next is a home game against an Illinois team that already beat Indiana, followed by a visit to a Nebraska team that just upset Ohio State in Lincoln. After that, six of the Hoosiers' final 10 league games are against Michigan, Minnesota, Iowa, Ohio State and Wisconsin.
In some ways, Tuesday night was another step forward for Indiana. Still, the Hoosiers will need more than moral victories to reach their goals.
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