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November 13, 2012ATLANTA - Tom Izzo made a concerted effort to make sure his team had no built-in excuses heading into Tuesday's victory over Kansas.
Instead, he began to recognize some built-in pride in the late stages of Michigan State's 67-64 upset of No. 7 Kansas, Saturday at Georgia Dome.
"I think players believed they could win," Izzo said. "I loved the way the huddles were at the end. That's a step in the right direction."
The victory served as a stark turnaround on the heels of a surprising loss to Connecticut last week in Germany.
"That's a mark of your character when you can take a trip like that, come back and practice two-a-days on Sunday and then do what we did," Izzo said. "I have to give my players a lot of credit because they actually sucked it up today. I mean it was not an easy win. It was not an easy time coming back from that trip.
"There were no excuses. We didn't let them make any. Give my players credit, give my staff credit. Big, big, big win."
Looking to bounce back from the loss to UConn, Michigan State turned to its top returning scorer from last season.
Keith Appling came through.
Hitting a pair of huge shots down the stretch - one from beyond the 3-point arc, the other on an acrobatic drive - Appling carried the No. 21 Spartans to the upset.
"The offense was kind of stagnant, so I wanted to make a play the best way I possible could," said Appling, who led Michigan State with 19 points. "From there, it was all she wrote."
"It turned into more of a halfcourt game than either one of us wanted," Izzo said. "For us, I know we were tired. We took off our blitz; we didn't run after made buckets. We tried to rest Appling because of the Travis Trice injury, so we stole some minutes there.
"We were still a little shaky in our offense. But we went to some ball screen stuff late and cleared out the side and let App go one-on-one and that proved to be the difference.
"Very proud of Keith. I thought at times he looked like a real point guard, made some decisions. That lob he threw to Adreian Payne was a big-time play."
After the Spartans (1-1) opened the season on the other side of the Atlantic, their road show continued with a doubleheader at the Georgia Dome - site of this season's Final Four - featuring four of the nation's best teams. No. 3 Kentucky faced No. 9 Duke in the second game.
The Jayhawks (1-1) led 59-54 with 5 minutes remaining, showing signs of taking control in a game that was tight all the way. But Michigan State rallied behind its brilliant guards.
"We did some good things," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "It's just that games are decided in the last five minutes. And they were better in the last five."
Freshman Gary Harris scored 18 points for the Spartans, including back-to-back baskets that sparked an 8-0 run. Appling, who averaged 11.4 points last season, took over from there.
The 6-foot-1 junior picked up a screen, darted away when 7-footer Jeff Withey popped out to help, then wound up with an open look from beyond the arc when Withey turned back for the lane and got tangled up with his own man.
"Just an incredible performance by a lot of different guys," Izzo said. "We had some guys that didn't play well (last week) bounce back. Gary Harris made some big plays. Appling made some big plays. Payne made a big play. Derrick Nix made a couple of big free throws. A lot of different guys. Denzel Valentine late in the game gets a big rebound. A lot of good things.
"Give Alex Gauna credit. He hit some shots. He played pretty good in there. A lot of guys played hard."
Freshmen Harris and Valentine again combined for more than 50 minutes of playing time.
"Both of them did a good job," Izzo said. "I thought Gary got a little tired; we just played him so many minutes.
"They made some good plays and then they made some freshman plays. To have those two in there, down the stretch, speaks volumes about both of them."
But the offense went though Appling at the end. His shot from the top of the circle was right on the mark, pushing the lead to 65-61 with 1:35 remaining.
Ben McLemore gave Kansas a chance, converting a three-point play after a needless foul by Denzel Valentine. But Appling drove past Withey at the other hand with a left-handled dribble, cradled the ball and banked in a shot between two defenders with 13.5 seconds to go.
That left Kansas with no choice but to try a 3. Travis Releford got a look as time expired, but his shot clanked off the side of the rim.
Elijah Johnson led Kansas with 16 points. Withey, who played so well in last season's NCAA tournament, wasn't much of a factor against the Spartans. He was held to eight points and seven rebounds, along with four turnovers.
"They are a tough team to play," Izzo said. "We did a pretty good job on the post people and a pretty good job on the perimeter. We helped a little too much in the post game and gave them some open shots in the first half and closed that up a little bit in the second half and it was better."
Michigan State's bulky big man, Derrick Nix, held his own against Withey with eight points and rebounds.
"Nix is a big guy, that's for sure," Withey said. "He's really strong. He's tough to guard."
The 7-footer did knock down a hook at the 5-minute mark, giving the Jayhawks what amounted to a comfortable lead in this one - five points.
Not comfortable enough.
Michigan State scored the next eight points. Harris swished a jumper, then darted into the lane to flip in a one-hander. Nix hit a pair of free throws on separate trips to the line, putting the Spartans ahead. Then, after Withey fumbled away an errant pass from Johnson, Branden Dawson hit a pair of free throws to extend the lead with just over 2 minutes remaining.
Johnson finally snapped the run, drawing a foul on Harris and hitting both free throws.
But the senior guard also missed a big jumper in the closing minutes and felt he let his team down.
"I put that all on me," Johnson said, feeling he let his team down. "Coach put the ball in my hands and I didn't do a great job."
The globe-trotting Spartans opened the season against UConn at an Air Force hanger in Germany. They were still a long way from home but at least playing in a bit more of a conventional venue, albeit one that is normally used by the NFL's Atlanta Falcons.
Kansas is hoping to get back to Atlanta in April and go one win farther than last season, when the Jayhawks lost to Kentucky in the national championship game.
The game was tight all the way, with a dozen ties and 11 lead chances. Kansas had the biggest lead, a 45-38 edge on Naadir Tharpe's 3-pointer with 12:02 remaining.
Kansas led 35-32 lead at the half and went to the locker room on a bit of a high, spurred on by a thunderous dunk by Jamari Traylor in the final minute. Johnson darted into the lane and missed, but Traylor, coming up from behind, slammed it through with his right hand to spark the Kansas contingent.
Harris led the Spartans in the first half with 11 points. Johnson and McLemore had seven apiece for the Jayhawks before the break.
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