EAST LANSING, Mich. - Keith Appling bounced back from a poor performance when No. 9 Michigan State needed him most.
Appling led a pivotal run early in the second half and finished with 24 points, eight rebounds and seven assists to help the short-handed Spartans beat Illinois 80-75 on Thursday night.
Michigan State (18-4, 7-2 Big Ten) started the game without senior center Derrick Nix, finished it without sophomore guard Travis Trice and played much of the second half without freshman guard Gary Harris.
"We just had to pick it up and grind the game out without Gary and Travis," Appling said.
The junior point guard was coming off a three-point, no-assist, five-foul performance Sunday in a five-point loss at No. 3 Indiana. Appling helped the Spartans score the first 14 points of the second half to bounce back from a 10-point halftime deficit and take their first lead against Illinois.
"He was the best player on the floor," Illinois coach John Groce said. "He did a great job of making his teammates better.
"He has a swagger about him that ultimately gives them swagger and confidence."
Nix didn't start because Izzo said the captain missed one class and one meeting with a tutor. He entered the game midway through the first half and finished with eight points.
"I've been telling you guys that we have been taking baby steps forward (as a team), well, took a giant step backward in the first half," Izzo said. "An inexcusable effort, unacceptable performance. Illinois played hard, played tough, they went after every ball.
"And then the second half, I guess we regroups and our kids came out and played hard. It was led by Appling.
"He did a heck of a job in the second half. Nix was a little bit better. Branden Dawson was a hair better. I thought Valentine was very good and we found a way to win and that's about the only good thing I have to say."
RELATED: Izzo Post-Game Audio
"Did that hurt my team? It did," Izzo said. "It was a distraction."
Trice, a key guard off the bench, was limited to 11 minutes in the first half because of a blow he took to the head on a shot attempt. Trice missed five games after breaking his nose and suffering a concussion in the season-opening loss to Connecticut. Izzo said early reports on his latest head injury were not encouraging.
Harris, a starter, went to the locker room midway through the second half with back spasms and returned to the bench, but not the game.
"He couldn't even walk so we couldn't put him back in," Izzo said. "That hurt us, we're just not deep enough."
Harris, who said he was OK after the game, had 14 points and fellow freshman Denzel Valentine scored a career-high 14, Branden Dawson had 12 points and nine rebounds and Adreian Payne added eight points, including a dunk off an Appling alley-oop pass with 1:45 left to put the Spartans up 72-67.
Appling's spinning, scooping, off-hand layup put Michigan State ahead by six points with 45 seconds remaining to essentially seal the victory that kept Michigan State undefeated at home this season.
Appling called his own number on that play, signaling for a clear-out after Illinois center Nnanna Egwu switched out onto Appling after a ball screen. Appling attacked the 6-foot-11 center with a crossover, then a spin dribble in the lane, and finally a left-handed glasser to provide the 6-point lead in the final minute.
The Fighting Illini (15-7, 2-6), who were ranked as high as No. 10, lost for the fifth time in six games. They had a chance to be the first team with four wins over currently ranked teams, but put themselves in a tough position for postseason play.
Illinois started strong and responded to rallies with shots and stops in the first half. Michigan State played with a lot of energy in the second half. Appling alternated making shots and setting up teammates to score in helping turn a 10-point deficit into a 41-37 lead.
"They came out and punched us in the mouth and I didn't like our response," Groce said.
Tracy Abrams scored 16 points for Illinois, D.J. Richardson had 14, Brandon Paul 13 and reserve Myke Henry 11.
The Spartans led by eight points midway through the second half, but couldn't put away a team that has been talented enough to beat some of the top teams in college basketball.
Illinois has beaten No. 7 Gonzaga by 11 points, No. 9 Butler by 17 and No. 11 Ohio State by 19 points. Since beating the Buckeyes on Jan. 5, the Illini lost lopsided games to Minnesota, Wisconsin, Northwestern and Michigan with their only win during the slump coming against 11th-place Nebraska.
Izzo was angry about Dawson's errors in communicating on defense and adhering to the defensive game plan.
"I thought Branden Dawson gave a pretty good speech in the locker room after the game, on why he was so inept," Izzo said. "(That was) a positive."
Video: Dawson takes blame for lacking focus:
Making five 3-pointers and having only one turnover helped the Illini lead 37-27 at halftime. MSU, meanwhile, had nine turnovers in the first half.
After struggling to keep possession of the ball early in the second half against newly-aggressive MSU defense, Abrams made some 3-pointers to keep Illinois within a possession of tying the game, including one with 5:39 left that made the score 63-60.
Early in the game, the Spartans looked rusty playing after a three-day break and Illinois seemed fired up to play.
Michigan State got off to an awful start with four turnovers on its first four possessions, leading to the Illini taking an 8-0 lead.
The second half was much different thanks in large part to Appling who had five points and one assist in the first half.
"We just had to get back on the winning track," Appling said. "My teammates and coaches have a lot of faith in me and put the ball in my hands."
Nix discusses missing class and izzo's punishment: