CHICAGO - Tom Izzo didn't like the way his team played for three-quarters of Michigan State's 59-56 victory over Iowa on Friday night. But he liked the way they grew up.
At halftime, with the Spartans trailing 30-20 and shooting miserably, Izzo closed his mouth, leaned up against the wall and waited to see what would happen, who would lead - if anyone.
He was pleased, and somewhat surprised, by the result.
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"This was my time to say, 'Okay, guys, going to see if you're going to take your team over a little bit,'" Izzo said. "And they did."
Michigan State will play Ohio State in the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament on Saturday at 4 p.m.
Izzo channeled the example of former Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson, who won championships in this building.
"I was here (the United Center) - the Zen master did that," Izzo said. "I'm not the Zen master, I can promise you that."
But it wasn't new for Izzo. He's done this type of thing before - most notably back in 2000 when he would let Mateen Cleaves choke-slam guilty teammates.
But there hasn't been anything close to Cleaves on this team, this year, from a leadership standpoint. But Friday night, the beginnings of some vocal direction took shape.
"At halftime I did something for the first time in a lot, a lot of years," Izzo said. "I just said, 'where are we going to go?' So I just leaned up the wall and asked whoever wanted to talk.
"Of all people, the most vocal guy in our locker room was Branden Dawson. He talked about the long road and we're not losing, and then Keith Appling jumped in. I said very little. Nix said a few things.
"It was kind of an emotional, not a rah‑rah or yelling emotional, just a down emotional thing.
"When I say I didn't do much, didn't earn my money at halftime, I've got a saying: Learn to listen and listen to learn. I just listened, tried to learn something about my team and tried to see who was going to step up, and to my surprise, of all the people that stepped up for us was BJ, and it's not in his character.
"It was interesting for me, because I had done that once in 2000 with Cleaves and Peterson, and it was one of the better things I had done," Izzo said. "Embarrassed to say I didn't have any answers at halftime, but I'm proud to say that I let them make the decision and maybe they grew up a little bit."
Izzo seemed willing to win or lose this game, depending on whether or not these players would own or lose their team. In a sink-or-swim challenge, MSU made a flip turn and swam hard all the way to the wall.
Izzo's zip-lipped approach continued into the second half, when he challenged Appling, Harris and others to lead the team, call plays, fix problems.
"This was the first time with this team that I just shut up," Izzo said. "I didn't say a lot on the sideline. So I think that was kind of cool for me. I don't know how it worked, but we didn't need a loss."
Adreian Payne had 18 points and 10 rebounds, leading No. 8 Michigan State to a rugged victory.
Keith Appling and Gary Harrishad 13 points apiece for the Spartans (25-7), who trailed by 12 midway through the second half.
Iowa (21-12) was oh so close to an upset victory that could have cemented a spot in the field for next week's NCAA tournament. Instead, the Hawkeyes will have to sweat out a nervous Selection Sunday.
The Hawkeyes got at least one basket from 11 players, but none of them scored in double figures. Mike Gesell led the way with nine points, and Devyn Marble and Melsahn Basabe each had eight.
Harris made a go-ahead 3-pointer for the Spartans with 4:10 left, part of a 22-2 run that gave Michigan State the lead for the first time in the game. Harris also had a big dunk in the spurt, and Appling contributed six points to the surge.
Derrick Nix converted a three-point play and Payne made a layup to stake Michigan State to a 57-49 lead with 1:54 remaining.
The Hawkeyes made one last charge, pulling within one on Basabe's rebound basket with 1:04 to go. But Harris made two foul shots on the other end, Basabe and Marble each missed for Iowa, and the Spartans ran out the clock.
Iowa shot 45.5 percent from the field, compared to 38.6 percent for Michigan State, but the Hawkeyes committed 19 turnovers were outscored 32-22 in the paint.
Appling drew a roar from the raucous crowd when he finished a drive down the middle with a terrific right-handed dunk over Basabe with 16:59 left, trimming Iowa's lead to 35-28 and sending the Michigan State sideline into a tizzy.
But Marble responded with a 3-pointer, and Iowa increased the lead to 45-33 on a 3 by Zach McCabe with 12:15 to go. McCabe held three fingers up on each hand, then pointed to his head as he ran down the court after the big shot.
It was another heartbreaking loss for the Hawkeyes against the Spartans, who won 62-59 at Iowa on Jan. 10. The game was tied at 56 with 1:04 left, but Appling made four free throws down the stretch to lead the Spartans to the victory.
Iowa opened the rematch with a 9-2 run and limited Michigan State to just eight field goals during an impressive first half. Aaron White and Anthony Clemmons each hit a jumper down the stretch to help the Hawkeyes to a 30-20 lead at intermission.
Michigan State shot 26.7 percent (8 for 30) in the first half, missing each of its eight tries from 3-point range. The Spartans had four assists and seven turnovers at the break.
"After a disappointing halftime where I didn't believe we were responding, these guys kind of took over, Branden Dawson, even a guy like Travis Trice, every one of them made a hero's play at the end, and wasn't just one guy," Izzo said. "Every guy made a big play. And we found a way to luckily, luckily win."
Gary In The Headlights
Izzo began the second half with Harris on the bench. Harris, the Big Ten Freshman of the Year, has arguably been Michigan State's steadiest player all season. But Harris seemed a step slow in the first half, so Izzo left him on the bench with the Spartans down 10 points, and inserted sophomore Travis Trice into the starting lineup for the second half.
"I've never seen Gary Harris be like that, you know, except first game of the year," Izzo said. "Gary the first half, he was non-existent. I think he was nailed to the floor. I don't know why. The last time I saw that was in Germany."
In that season-opening loss to Connecticut, Izzo blamed Harris's shaky performance to the nerves associated with making a college debut. Friday's game marked another debut of sorts for Harris and Michigan State's other freshmen, each of whom had some poor moments.
Denzel Valentine had four turnovers, including an in-bound wild pitch which gave Iowa an extra chance in the closing seconds.
Freshman center Matt Costello also seemed to show some nerves.
"So maybe I'm not appreciating these young guys some of them getting a little bit (nervous)," Izzo said. "Four turnovers, maybe that (tournament jitters) is some of it, and I hate to say it. But it's good to have a rock and he (Harris) my rock. He's a tough kid and he hung in there. I know he cares."
So Izzo let Harris care on the bench a little bit. Then, about midway through the second half, Harris was instrumental in creating the spark which ignited a stirring comeback.
31 of 32, Now
Izzo complimented his team last Sunday for showing up and playing hard - regardless of outcome - in all 31 games during the regular season.
He spoke too soon.
"I'm disappointed because now I can't say we went 32 games not showing up, because we didn't show up the first half," Izzo said. "I have to blame myself, because I made a big deal about us showing up for 31 times, and we didn't show up today for the first half and that really does fall on me.
"But I can say 98 percent of this year, we've shown up every game, and I'll look at this as an out‑of‑body experience and get ready for Ohio State."
Anatomy Of A Run
Trailing 47-37 with 8:38 left, Harris drove around 6-foot-5, 219-pound guard Eric May for a thunderous dunk to cut the lead to eight points and ignite new energy for the Spartans.
With that dunk, Michigan State scored on nine of 10 possessions in turning a 10-point deficit into a 57-49 lead with 1:55 left. It marked some of the most spirited, focused, well-rounded basketball of the year for Michigan State.
During the stretch, Payne turned in four monster plays on defense - including two blocked shots, a hedge/help which resulted in an Iowa turnover, and a switch onto guard Devyn Marble after a ball screen, cutting off Marble and forcing him to step out of bounds for another turnover.
"Those plays really helped the momentum on our team," Appling said. "I feel like they helped us pick it up on the defensive end, and once we picked it up, we started to get stops and get it in the basket on the offensive end."
As for the string of offensive trips, it went like this:
Harris drives from the right wing, into the lane for a running, flying, one-handed glasser from 7 feet (47-41, Iowa).
Appling, in transition after a Payne block, froze an Iowa defender with a hesitation-and-go move. Appling took it to the rack for a lay-up in traffic. (47-43, Iowa).
Dawson converted a put-back off a Harris missed 10-footer (49-45, Iowa).
Payne made two free throws after getting fouled while attempting a dunk off a diagonal alley-oop feed in the zone offense (49-47, Iowa).
Harris hit a 3-pointer from the right wing off a set play in the zone offense, getting a seal screen from Payne (Michigan State 50-49, with 4:15 remaining).
Appling refused a ball screen and beat his man to the lane and then adjusted around Zach McCabe in the paint for lay-up (52-49, MSU).
Nix scored in the post with a drop step move to his right shoulder, scoring with the left hand while being fouled. He made the free throw. (55-49, MSU).
Payne scored on a put-back after Appling drove and missed (57-49, MSU with 1:55 left).
Keith Appling: "We just had to focus in. We knew we made too many mistakes and we just had to come together as a team and start picking up our play."
Adreian Payne: "Keith told me we weren't losing the game, and he stepped up and led us. Coach always said, if the head dies, the body lies. Keith is our head, and he didn't die. He just kept on playing. He brought a lot of energy and he led us, really his body language, and everything showed."
Payne: "This game was very physical, as you can see I got busted in the lip four times."
Appling: "We have a lot of guys with the will to win, and we just didn't want to go home. That's the character of our team. We fought as hard as we could and the second half, tried to pull away a little bit."
Appling on Iowa: "They just came out with a little more energy, simple as that. They got all the 50/50 balls and they were all over the place. But the second half we picked it up and changed our mind‑set and were able to come out with the win."