Keith Appling (Getty Images)
Needless to say he atoned for his mistakes in Michigan State's next game four days later.
With Gary Harris (back) and Travis Trice (concussion) sidelined in the second half and fellow guard Denzel Valentine battling foul trouble, Appling provided the perimeter spark the Spartans needed to survive Illinois' best performance in a few weeks. Appling scored 24 points, grabbed eight rebounds and dished out seven assists to lead Michigan State to an 80-75 victory in a game the Spartans trailed by 10 at halftime.
If Appling had established himself as one of the Big Ten's premier late-game playmakers in recent weeks, then the Michigan State point guard only added to his lore Thursday night.
He drove to the rim, drew a help defender and found Branden Dawson for an alley-oop slam to extend Michigan State's lead to five with 1:45 remaining. He spun past his man and made a layup to push the lead to six a minute later. And he iced the crucial victory with three free throws in the final 17 seconds.
Appling's performance helped Michigan State (18-4, 7-2) bounce back from its loss in Bloomington and remain within striking distance of the Big Ten lead. The loser of Saturday's first-place showdown between Michigan and Indiana will be tied for second place with the Spartans, just a game out of first place.
Illinois, which looked like a potential Big Ten contender in November and December, can only dream of being where Michigan State is now.
Illinois built up a good margin for error with victories over Butler, Gonzaga and Ohio State earlier in the season, but the Illini are probably going to need to find a way to win one or two of their next three. If they can't get to at least 8-10 in Big Ten play, even making the NCAA tournament at all is going to be very dicey.
The problem for Illinois in Big Ten play has been that the 3-point shooting that carried them in November and December has suddenly vanished. The Illini actually shot a respectable 9 of 25 from behind the arc at Michigan State, but it was their perimeter defense that let them down.
It was Appling who did the most damage, but he had plenty of help. Harris scored 14 points on 5 of 7 shooting before leaving with his back injury early in the second half, while Valentine also added 14 off the bench on 4-for-4 shooting and 6 of 8 from the foul line.
Michigan State will need Trice and especially Harris to get healthy during their week-long layoff between games, but the Spartans are in good shape to make a run at a high NCAA tournament seed and a conference championship.
Harris is emerging as one of the Big Ten's top freshman. The frontcourt is playing with more consistency. And when the game is close in the final minutes, Michigan State has a point guard who has shown he's capable of finishing it himself.
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