AUBURN HILLS, Mich. - The process wasn't pretty, but some of the byproducts of Michigan State's difficult 67-63 victory over Oakland University on Saturday were somewhat satisfying to coach Tom Izzo.
Junior power forward Branden Dawson played hard and effectively, which was a welcomed change after a lethargic performance against North Carolina 10 days ago .
Izzo was also encouraged by the play of reserve post player Alex Gauna, who took up some space and was somewhat active, and freshman guard Alvin Ellis III, who responded well to key defensive assignments and logged 19 useful minutes.
The team, as a whole, though, has had trouble making progress while battling injuries, illness and a week of final exams.
"We looked like the discombobulated team that we are right now," Izzo said. "We haven't practiced with anybody in those 10 days. Payne practiced two of them. We have too many starters out right now, with Appling at three-quarters and Payne almost non-existent, and Harris and Costello not playing at all."
Gary Harris missed the game due to a sprained ankle.
Matt Costello is out with mononucleosis.
Keith Appling missed practice time after the North Carolina game due to a hip bruise, and sustained a minor ankle tweak against Oakland. Appling managed 21 points, 18 of which came in the second half.
Adreian Payne, coming back from a case of plantar fasciitis which slowed him in early December, had 20 points.
Gauna and Ellis served as complementary components to usual stars Keith Appling (21 points) and (20 points) in an underwhelming victory for the Spartans, who trailed by 8 in the first half and 1 at intermission.
"It's not easy to have a 10-day layoff and finals and the injuries," Izzo said. "We found a way to win. There are a lot of reasons why we are not the type of team we need to be right now."
Appling was 3-of-4 from 3-point range for the No. 5-ranked Spartans, but had a season-high six turnovers. The Spartans (8-1) had 17 turnovers on the day.
"I thought Branden Dawson really came back and played hard," Izzo said. "Keith Appling rose up, although Keith was hurt most of the week and didn't play up to his standard.
"We had 15 turnovers with 10 minutes to go in the game so we took decent care of the basketball down the stretch - so there are some positives there," Izzo added. "Keith stepped up and kind of took over, so there were some positives there. We went inside a little bit to Payne at times, so there were positives there."
Dawson strong-bodied his way to 16 points and 10 rebounds in 36 minutes of playing time.
"Dawson made some mistakes and made some turnovers but this time they were effort turnovers in that he was going too hard or too fast, or trying to do too much, which I would take over last week's performance any day of the week.
"So I think we got some things straightened out with him. I thought Dawson really responded today. I got after him pretty good. I was actually proud of Branden."
Dawson took only two shots and had two turnovers in 17 minutes during Michigan State's 79-65 home loss to the Tar Heels on Dec. 4. It was a much different story against the Golden Grizzlies, with Dawson going 7 for 13 from the field and blocking three shots in 36 minutes.
"There was a different mindset and definitely a different approach," Dawson said. "I'd just had one of the worst games since I've been here against North Carolina. So the guys all pushed me, and Coach talked to me."
Oakland, 2-9 after journeying through the most difficult schedule in the country to this point in the season, caught the Spartans in a rut.
"We just have to come out more ready to play," Appling said. "It's as simple as that. I knew in the second half I had to be more aggressive, not only looking for my shot but getting to the paint, making the defense collapse and finding my teammates on kickouts."
Izzo liked Gauna's approach to the game, although he played only nine minutes and cracked the stat sheet for only two rebounds. Izzo opted to stay small most of the day with Dawson at the four.
"I thought Alex Gauna did okay, too," Izzo said. "I wanted to get him more minutes, and didn't. I was okay with him. He should have played a little bit more. It wasn't anything bad, it was just the match ups and what we thought we had to do."
The Spartans were also without redshirt freshman power forwardKenny Kaminski (academic suspension).
Ellis spent some time guarding Oakland 3-point specialist Travis Bader. Ellis was energetic and steady on defense in his first extended role of these season.
"I thought he had a very good game," Izzo said. "He was the one guy that checked. He did some nice things defensively.
"He still had a problem turning it over a little bit (three turnovers), but I thought he did some nice things. He was definitely a big sparkplug to this team."
Duke Mondy, the nation's leader in steals, had 24 points and seven swipes for the Golden Grizzlies (2-9). Travis Bader, who grew up in the shadows of Michigan State where his father was an administrative assistant for Izzo for years and is now director of sports operations at MSU, had 18 points and Corey Petros added 11 for Oakland, winless in 12 games in the series.
"I had seven steals?" Mondy said. "I didn't even know that. I have great anticipation. I'm not a gambler, but I like to gamble sometimes."
The Spartans got all but 10 of their points from Appling, Payne and Dawson, and only had five players score. But a 41-32 rebounding edge gave them just enough to bounce back from the loss to North Carolina that knocked them out of the No. 1 spot in the poll.
"It has been a miserable 10 days," Izzo said. "You lose and you want to go to war, but you can't go to war without bodies. We hope to get Gary back this week. Costello, I have no idea about that. But we're missing Gary. He's the best two-way player we've got."
The Golden Grizzlies jumped to a 20-12 lead, taking advantage of the Spartans' sloppiness. Oakland had four assists on its first five baskets, while Michigan State was recording one assist and committing seven turnovers.
"The start they had kept them in the game," Izzo said. "If we'd gotten them down early, maybe some of those losses they've had would've mounted."
Michigan State managed to rally for a 35-31 lead early in the second half on two jumpers by Appling. But Oakland wouldn't go away.
"Oakland played well, they played hard," Izzo said. "They made some shots I haven't seen them make."
Bader's third 3 tied it at 50 with 7:44 to play. He was 4 for 14 from long range.
An Appling 3 and a Bader turnover helped Michigan State take a five-point advantage, its largest of the day to that point. Another Bader turnover and a layup and free throw by Appling built the cushion to 58-50 and seemed to create some daylight.
"They were just so physical," Oakland coach Greg Kampe said. "A couple of our bigger backups are out for the season, and we just don't have the size to match them. We weren't physical enough, and Dawson had his way down in there."
The Golden Grizzlies closed to 60-56 with 2:42 left. But Travis Trice hit a 3 at the end of the shot clock to give the Spartans a seven-point edge.
"We have to get a lot better, but I have to keep in mind that we were coming off of finals and we need to get our players back," Izzo said. "We just need a bunch of them to practice."