Appling posts huge numbers in Spartans' win over Illinois

The SportsXchange

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Keith Appling shrugged off a poor performance at Indiana with his best all-around game of the season.

Appling, Michigan State's junior guard, had 24 points, eight rebounds and seven assists as the No. 9 Spartans overcame their largest halftime deficit of the season and defeated Illinois 80-75 at Breslin Center on Thursday. Appling, who had three points, no assists and four turnovers in the Spartans' five-point loss to the Hoosiers on Sunday, contributed 19 points and six assists after halftime.

"The coaches and my teammates, they have the utmost trust in me," said Appling, who fell one point shy of matching his career high. "Whenever the game's close and it's down the stretch, they try to get the ball in my hands and I try to make something happen for myself or my teammates."

They needed a big outing from Appling to overcome an uneven performance and injuries. Freshman Gary Harris, who had 14 points, was limited to nine second-half minutes with a back injury while sophomore Travis Trice missed the second half after taking a knee to the head.

Michigan State, which also received a career-high 14 points from freshman Denzel Valentine, shot 59.5 percent but coach Tom Izzo was unimpressed.

"We've got a new special tonight because the numbers do lie," he said. "We took a giant step backward in the first half. We found a way to win and that's about the only good thing I have to say."

Branden Dawson chipped in 12 points and nine rebounds for the Spartans (18-4 overall, 7-2 Big Ten), who are 12-0 at home this season. Michigan State outscored Illinois 24-12 at the free throw line.

Tracy Abrams' 16 points, five rebounds, six assists and four steals led Illinois (15-7, 2-6), which has lost five of its last six. Senior guard Brandon Paul, the Big Ten's third leading scorer at 17.9 points per game, was held to 13 points.

"Absolutely, your backs are against the wall and you've to fight your way out of it," Illini coach John Groce said. "No one's going to give you anything. We have to do a better job defending and playing hard without fouling."

Down 10 at the break, Michigan State came back on the court fired up. Appling had five points and two assists as the Spartans opened the second half with 14 unanswered points to grab a 41-37 lead. The Spartans forced four turnovers before the run ended when D.J. Richardson made three free throws with 15:22 left.

"It's unacceptable," Groce said of the giveaways. "We can't let guys take our ball. We can't have bobbled entry passes. We've got to be more precise. When we were in the first half, we were really good but give them credit, they amped it up."

Harris' layup with 12:19 remaining pushed Michigan State's lead to eight, 51-43. The Illini stayed within striking distance from that point but never caught up.

Appling's 3-pointer with 4:20 left gave his team a 68-62 lead. A Paul 3-pointer cut Michigan State's edge to 69-67.

Dawson's dunk off an Appling lob with 1:43 remaining made it 72-67. Appling's twirling move in the lane and layup during the final minute then gave the Spartans enough cushion to clinch the victory.

The Illini got an unexpected lift from reserve sophomore guard Myke Henry in the first half while taking a 37-27 halftime lead.

Henry, whose season high was nine points, had eight of his season-best 11 points in the half. He converted a 3-pointer and a put-back to give his club a double-digit lead.

"What went wrong is they worked harder than us," Izzo said. "They got every loose ball, they got 17 second-chance points, they just dominated. We're not guarding like we can guard."

NOTES: Spartans senior center Derrick Nix was benched until the 10:38 mark of the first half because he missed a class and a session with a tutor. Nix finished with eight points. ... The last 15 games in the series have been decided by 10 points or less. This was the only regular-season meeting between the schools this season. ... Harris leads all Big Ten freshman in scoring in conference games (13.3 ppg). ... Izzo feared that Trice, a sophomore guard, could be out an extended period. He has already missed five games this season with a broken nose and concussion. ... The Illini were10-0 when shooting at least 45 percent from the field until Thursday, when they shot exactly 45 percent. ... Illinois is 2-4 against ranked opponents. ... Paul has scored at least 20 points eight times this season, while the balanced Spartans have only nine 20-point games from their entire team.
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