There aren't many teams in the nation who could be competitive at Big Ten contender Iowa without two of their four best players.
Michigan State did more than that Tuesday night. The Spartans won.
With top big man Adreian Payne sidelined by a right foot injury and starting wing Branden Dawson out with a broken right hand, Michigan State still edged Iowa 71-69 in overtime in front of a fiery sellout crowd at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Keith Appling scored a team-high 16 points and the Spartans' relentless defense held the typically ultra-efficient Hawkeyes without a field goal for almost 15 consecutive minutes in the second half and overtime.
Michigan State's victory gives the Spartans (19-2, 8-1) a cushion of two or more games over every Big Ten team besides Michigan. The Wolverines (15-4, 7-0) remain the lone unbeaten Big Ten team after notching a come-from-behind 80-75 victory in East Lansing on Saturday evening.
Injuries may make it difficult for the Spartans to catch the Wolverines since Payne is likely to miss another couple games and Dawson may not return until the Big Ten tournament. Nonetheless, as long as Michigan State is healthy in time for March, it may be better off because of the injuries because its role players are improving rapidly with all the increased playing time and responsibility.
Hard-working big man Matt Costello has delivered his two best games at Michigan State the past three days, following a nine-point, eight-rebound performance against Michigan by scoring 11 points, grabbing 12 boards and defending the rim effectively at Iowa. Reserve guard Travis Trice took advantage of his most playing time since mid-December, burying a trio of 3-pointers off the bench against the Hawkeyes. And seldom-used guard Russell Byrd sank maybe the biggest shot of his college career Tuesday night, a 3-pointer that extended Michigan State's tenuous lead to 70-64 with 33 seconds to go.
That should have finished off Iowa, but Michigan State gave the Hawkeyes new life with some uncharacteristic late mistakes.
Gary Harris fouled Roy Devyn Marble on a layup with six seconds left that allowed Iowa to cut a five-point lead to two. Appling then missed a pair of ensuing free throws, but the Hawkeyes failed to capitalize as Mike Gesell missed a contested potential game-tying runner at the buzzer.
Iowa was fortunate to even force overtime because the Hawkeyes' only offense came at the foul line.
Though the Hawkeyes missed their final eight shots of regulation including a Marble jumper and Melsahn Basabe put-back on their final possession, they stayed in it by getting to the foul line an incredible 43 times. Iowa shot 37.2 percent from the field for the game, but scored 16 points off free throws during its almost 15 minutes without a field goal.
Still, Michigan State survived, a heck of a win under the circumstances.
Not only have the Spartans managed to remain in contention in the Big Ten in spite of their many injuries, the experience their role players have gained will make the team even more dangerous if healthy in March.