EAST LANSING - Derrick Nix had 25 points and 11 rebounds to help No. 20 Michigan State surge past Texas 67-56 Saturday afternoon.
"He won the game for us and we went to him," said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo. "It was a great deal."
Nix was 7-for-10 from the field and 11-for-13 at the line, a major improvement for a 64.9-percent foul shooter.
"Sometimes he is not playing hard enough but tonight he brought it all night long and wanted the ball, they wanted to get it to him and we ran a lot of plays to get it to him," Izzo said. "He has grown up enormously in the last two years, trust me. This year, those tantrums that used to happen on a regular basis, come very seldom now. He was locked in tonight. He moved his feet on defense. They hurt us on those curl moves, I thought they were pushing off and turning in. It was a physical game both ways and Nix was the only guy that stepped up and did the things that he was supposed to do."
Keith Appling had 14 points and Adreian Payne added 13 for the Spartans (11-2), who stayed perfect in six December games.
Julien Lewis scored 16 points and Sheldon McClellan had 13 for the Longhorns (7-5), who couldn't match the efficiency of their 85-67 win over North Carolina Wednesday night.
Texas trailed 41-40 and had a chance to take a lead but McClellan missed two free throws after a technical on Nix. The Spartans promptly grabbed a three-point lead on a jumper by Payne. They later made it 49-40 on two free throws by Nix and an Appling 3-pointer from an inside-out feed via Nix.
"Inside they (Nix and Payne) went to work in there," said Texas coach Rick Barnes. "Obviously he (Nix) knew where he wanted the ball and he got it there. We didn't fight him hard enough to keep him from that space. We got to have a bigger effort by our bigger post players. They got a high percentage shots in there. We can't be that easy to score inside against. A couple of our post guys got driven by, which can't happen."
It was 54-44 when the Longhorns cut the lead in half. A three-point play by Ioannis Papapetrou made a four-point game, and his jumper as the shot clock expired cut the margin to 56-54. After Payne and Appling built the lead back to six and Texas' Jonathan Holmes was called for charging, Nix added a free throw to build the lead back to seven.
Nix fittingly grabbed the game's last rebound, giving his team a 36-32 edge on the boards. That and 17 second-half free throws helped immensely.
Texas, the last non-conference opponent to win in Breslin Center exactly two years earlier, came in leading the nation in field goal percentage defense at .330. The Longhorns turned up the tempo, then dropped back into a zone to start the second half. But that didn't help against Nix, who sparked a 10-0 run to give the Spartans a 36-33 lead.
"We screened better, we got it into the post better," Izzo said. "We guarded pretty well and they shot 38 percent but they made some tough shots."
Michigan State is now off until its Big Ten season opener on Dec. 31 at Minnesota.
When asked whether we might see more of a two-bigs lineup in Big Ten play after Nix and Payne played well as a tandem for short stretches in this game, Izzo was noncommittal.
"I don't know how we're going to play when we get into the Big Ten," Izzo said. "I guess that depends on who we play but as always, we have the versatility to do both, we can play smaller and we can play bigger. We have to keep Denzel Valentine out of foul trouble and we have to keep Gary Harris making some of those three's that he was making, he made all of them at the beginning of the year. He'll bounce back; I have no worries about that."
More game coverage to come, on SpartanMag.com