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In the final minutes of Tuesday night's delightfully entertaining matchup between Final Four contenders Kansas and Michigan State, the margin between the two teams came down to one difference.
Kansas is still searching for its go-to option at crunch time. Michigan State has already found its top threat.
Point guard Keith Appling scored a game-high 19 points and made two game-changing baskets in the final two minutes, propelling the Spartans to an impressive 67-64 victory over the Jayhawks at the site of the 2013 Final Four.
With Michigan State clinging to a one-point lead and less than two minutes remaining, Appling came off a screen and buried a 3-pointer to extend the Spartans' advantage to four. An Appling turnover on what appeared to be a reach-in foul the officials missed enabled Kansas to climb within one, but the point guard again came to Michigan State's rescue on its final possession, attacking the rim and banking in a deft up-and-under layup to make the margin three again with 13.5 seconds to go.
Appling's heroics enabled Michigan State to avoid falling to 0-2 to start the season for the second straight season. The Spartans lacked energy, assertiveness or any semblance of an interior offense in a lackluster loss to UConn on Friday in Germany, but they bounced back from that disappointment and overcame any lingering jet lag four days later.
It might have been Kansas celebrating a big early victory had the Jayhawks managed to identify a go-to threat down the stretch the way the Spartans did.
Last year's team turned to Thomas Robinson in the post or Tyshawn Taylor off the dribble whenever it needed a bucket in the final minutes. Maybe Jeff Withey and Elijah Johnson eventually grow into that reliable a duo later this season. Perhaps it's freshman wing Ben McLemore who emerges as the No. 1 option by March. But what Kansas' final five or six possessions showed Tuesday was nobody has seized that role yet.
Kansas led 59-54 with five minutes to go on a Jeff Withey basket, but the Jayhawks only managed five more points from there. Perry Ellis had a missed jumper and a turnover. Johnson had a couple of misses. Withey struggled to get the ball in position to score.
The Jayhawks appeared to try to get the ball to Johnson on their final possession trailing by three after Appling's brilliant layup. He couldn't get a shot off and fed Travis Releford for an errant contested 3-pointer, a fitting finish to a poor final few minutes for a Kansas team that showed promise but remains a work in progress.