INDIANAPOLIS – The player who best personifies Michigan State's season-long swan dive might have just kept the Spartans' NCAA tournament streak from expiring at 13 seasons.
Durrell Summers, who has struggled all year to find his shot and came out slow Thursday, finished with a clutch 3-pointer and a defensive flourish, allowing MSU to hold off Iowa 66-61 in a Big Ten tournament first-round game at Conseco Fieldhouse.
It was just a year ago that Summers' sharpshooting keyed the Spartans' surprising run to the Final Four. But the senior swingman has been in a funk from the jump in 2010-11, part of the reason – along with injuries and the departures of guards Chris Allen and Korie Lucious – that MSU slipped from a preseason No. 2 ranking to the NCAA tourney bubble.
It can breathe a little easier about making the field of 68 after surviving the Hawkeyes. Coach Tom Izzo can only hope Summers' flurry at the finish is the start of something bigger.
"Well, there are no secrets that it's been a disappointing year for him and it's been a disappointing year for us," Izzo said. "And I thought he struggled during the game, just fumbling the ball and doing some things. It all means he's pressing. Sometimes if you just do a couple things to feel good about yourself, you can get over that."
Summers finished with just nine points and three rebounds over 29 minutes against Iowa. He made just 2-of-6 field goal attempts on the night.
But his 3-pointer with 4:18 left in the game gave the Spartans (18-13) a lead they would not relinquish. MSU didn't cough up the edge because of a huge rebound, a steal and four clutch free throws by Summers over the final 24 seconds.
"There's no question he had some looks and he had some shots, and that last shot was big," Izzo said. "But I'm not kidding you, the rebounds he had were just about as big. One thing he could do a better job with is his rebounding, and I think it would help him. But making a shot, making the free throws, getting a big rebound, hopefully it motivates him."
Summers seemed to respond to a call for more effort after senior point guard Kalin Lucas (11 points, four assists) was hobbled by a sprained ankle seven minutes into the second half. Seemingly lacking focus throughout the season, he was more aware on the court and it showed.
"As far as rebounds, I was just being aggressive, just finding the ball really, just happened to notice where the ball was," Summers said. "And as far as the free throws, I just kind of talked to myself at the line and said … basically I just told myself to go on up. That's something I tell myself as a confidence builder, and that's pretty much what I did, and just let them go."
On the 3-pointer, Summers seemed to pause before punching it through the net.
"Yeah, I kind of hesitated because I was so wide open, I just let it go," he said. "The guys are yelling from the bench, 'Shoot it,' so I just shot it and it went in."
Summers' late heroics complemented the efforts of junior big man Draymond Green, who finished with 21 points, 14 rebounds and four assists. He was a load inside and knocked down some big shots.
"Draymond did a lot of good things," Izzo said. "We were able to go to him. I thought he broke down a couple times and threw some passes I've never seen him throw, but when he's inside like that he's a better rebounder. And getting six offensive rebounds and putbacks, 14 rebounds for the game, that's what we need if we're going to be successful."
MSU has to take better care of the ball. Over one stretch they turned the ball over on four consecutive possessions to see Iowa build a 52-45 lead with 11:40 remaining. The Spartans had 15 turnovers for the game.
Such carelessness against Purdue in a quarterfinal game Friday will be deadly.
Whether Lucas is 100 percent or not, Summers and his teammates will have to be even better for even longer if MSU has any chance of defeating the Boilermakers. JaJuan Johnson might be the best player in the conference. E'Twaun Moore can be devastating. Purdue owns a pair of victories against the Spartans this season, prevailing 86-76 in West Lafayette and blowing out Izzo's squad 67-47 in East Lansing.
More will be needed from freshman guard Keith Appling and junior forward Delvon Roe. They will have to check Johnson and Moore and pitch in offensively. Appling made some nice drives and finished with 10 points against Iowa. Roe had five points and five rebounds against the Hawkeyes.
Though it was an uneven performance, the Spartans showed some of the qualities that have previously made them such a tough out in March. They outrebounded Iowa 39-31 and limited its shooting to 39.3 percent. Such numbers will come much harder against the Boilers.
Still, more sating than any statistic was the awakening of Summers. If he finds his confidence – and his shot – MSU might again be dangerous.