EAST LANSING - For the second straight game, Keith Appling helped rescue No. 14-ranked Michigan State from a precarious threat, as the Spartans pulled away from Oakland, 70-52 at Breslin Center.
After sustaining a mild ankle sprain at the end of the first half, Appling began delivering Michigan State from harm with 5:00 to go when he nailed a 3-pointer from the right wing off an inside-out pass from Derrick Nix.
That shot began a 15-1 run in the final minutes, helping the Spartans rally from a tight, 56-52 situation.
Three days earlier, Appling took over in the late stages to save the Spartans in a 74-70 victory over Boise State.
On Friday against Oakland, Appling applied clamp-down defense on Oakland guard Duke Mondy to spur the game-ending run. Mondy had scored 7 straight points in putting Oakland to within 55-51 before Appling began taking over at both ends of the floor.
"I just say give Keith Appling credit; he has turned into a man, right now," said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo. "He rebounded, he defended, he played a lot of minutes, he played hurt, he shot the ball well."
Appling scored 20 points on 7-of-15 shooting. He was 2-of-4 from 3-point range and had 6 rebounds.
When Oakland cut it to 43-39 earlier in the second half, Appling answered with a floater down the late to put MSU up 45-39. Then he drove for another floater along the baseline to make it 47-39.
"When Oakland pulled within four, a couple of guys in the huddle spoke up: Nix and Keith," Izzo said. "That's good right now. We have to start mixing it up a little bit. It's been too calm. I like when it's a little more intense.
"We said we're going inside more and that's when Nix made a couple of big plays."
Freshman Denzel Valentine had team-highs in rebounding, 10, and assists, 6. He was a steadying influence at three positions, and helped with scoring, passing and rebounding.
"We were able to grind it out," Izzo said. "We won by 18 and that's the worst 18-point win in the history of the game. (Oakland coach) Greg Kampe said it well; that was one of the worst games between the two teams in years."
After setting up Appling with the inside-out 3-pointer to put MSU up by 7, Nix then nailed a fall-away lefty jump hook to give the Spartans a 60-52 lead with 4:10 left.
"I felt like once we got back to getting the ball down low some good things happened," Izzo said. "Nix had some great kick-outs."
Two trips later, Nix set up in the post and kicked out to Payne for a face-up 15-footer along the baseline against Oakland's zone defense to make it 62-52 with 3:00 to play.
"I thought our inside play once Nix and Payne got going was impressive," Izzo said.
Nix added a put-back to extend the lead to 64-52 with 1:43 left, and a reverse lay-up to make it 68-52.
One trip earlier, Valentine drive and dished to Payne for a dunk.
What Really Happened
Michigan State had a terrible time with turnovers, committing 20, including 13 in the first half.
Byrd committed three of his turnovers on simple post entry passes.
"The turnovers are just almost ridiculous that him (Byrd) and Brandon had, but some of it is because I'm playing guys out of position," Izzo said. "And we have no time to practice with a lineup that I wouldn't be playing."
What's The Problem?
The Spartans are playing without starting wing guard Gary Harris, who is out two to three weeks with a shoulder sprain. Back-up guard Travis Trice has been out since the season opener due to a concussion.
"Those perimeter guys right now, we have so much work to do and hopefully something is going to change," Izzo said.
With Harris and Trice unavailable, MSU lacked perimeter shooting punch. Byrd was 1-of-5 from 3-point range and is now just 2-of-15 from 3-point range for the year.
With MSU lacking perimeter shooting, Oakland played zone and defended MSU's favorite post-entry portal to the high post.
Dawson is not a threat to shoot from more than 15 feet. Oakland backed off of him and invited him to launch two 17-footers in the first half, which he missed.
Izzo says players determine their own playing time more so than coaches. Byrd, a sophomore from Fort Wayne, hurt his case for a regular role when Trice and Harris come back. He struggled through 20 minutes of playing time.
Valentine played a major role in steadying things for Michigan State in the second half, moving to the four to give the zone offense some structure.
Earlier, Valentine moved to the point for a possession or two, resulting in Appling getting free in the right corner as a two-guard to put MSU up 41-29.
Adreian Payne made an impact at power forward, scoring 20 points on 6-of-7 shooting, to go along with nine rebounds. He played 30 minutes, and had to leave at the end with cramps. He drilled two face-up shots from range.
Appling is finding a comfort level in taking over when things become. True to his point guard role, he tries to get others involved through the course of the game, but on two occasions he came to the forefront to snuff out the Grizzlies when they made runs to pull within five points.
Not only did he come forward with big shots from range or on the drive, he also ratcheted up his defense, and also directed the ball to Nix for key possessions in the final minutes.
Valentine and Nix served as worthy accomplices for Appling.
"We had segments of guys. Payne had a stretch when we were dying that he was just phenomenal," Izzo said. "Nix had a stretch at the end when he was very good. And Denzel had some stretches when he was. And Keith had a whole game when he was. It's just a matter of getting Keith more involved."
Shrinking Playing Group
Izzo planned and hoped to play 10 or 11 players more than 10 minutes per game in a pressing, fast-breaking system this year. Due to injuries, however, Izzo had had to play Appling more minutes than he would like, and decrease the tempo.
Appling played 38 minutes. He probably would have played 40 if he hadn't gone down momentarily with the leg injury at the end of the first half. Appling played 40 minutes during Tuesday's narrow victory over Boise State.
Wings Byrd and Brandan Kearney were the only Spartan reserves with more than 8 minutes.
Kearney played well on defense. But he turned down an open 3-pointer on the left wing in the first half. MSU probably needs him to attempt that shot. After he turned it down, Payne committed a turnover off the dribble as the entire possession became awkward.
Kearney also struggled with a pair of erratic entry passes. That was uncharacteristic of him.
For the first time all year, Costello played more minutes than sophomore Alex Gauna. Gauna played 3 minutes, and had 1 assist and 1 turnover after mishandling an entry pass from Kearney that was too hard at close quarters.
Oakland trailed 36-23 when they went to a 3-2 zone defense.
Byrd struggled with high post entry passes and ball reversals.
With Nix sitting with three fouls, Izzo moved Dawson to the four, putting him at the high post (near the foul line) in the zone offense. Dawson committed two turnovers in the high post as Oakland cut into the lead.
"Some of it is my fault," Izzo said. "I moved Branden Dawson (to the four) when they went into zone and he is just not ready for that yet."
Izzo then put Valentine at the four and he delivered immediately. He went to the high post and found freshman center Matt Costello with a no-look feed for a lay-up to stem an earlier Oakland run and give MSU a 43-35 lead.
Later, Valentine drove and dished to Payne for a dunk (51-39).
Then, after a pair of Valentine free throws, the freshman from Lansing Sexton threw down a terrific put-back jam of a Nix miss to put MSU up 55-44.
"Earlier, I thought Denzel was back to his one-hand passes," Izzo said. "What I do like about Denzel is he bounced back. He told me at halftime, 'It's not going to happen again.' He shored up his defense. We all know the guy is going to be a hell of a player it's just that we almost need him to be too good right now because of the situation we're in.
"There were some positives," Izzo added. "We found a way to shoot 53 percent, made some big shots late. We shot 83 percent from the line (15 of 18); that's getting better and better. We out-rebounded a team by 15 that's been rebounding well. That's getting better."
Stats And Such
Izzo said Trice began riding on a stationary bike in recent days and has been able to attempt a few shots, as the sophomore guard continues to try to come back from a concussion sustained in the season-opening loss on Nov. 9 against Connecticut in Germany.
"That's a move in the right direction," Izzo said.
Derrick Nix had 10 points on 5-of-6 shooting with seven rebounds.
MSU held Oakland to 3-of-21 from 3-point range. Sharp-shooting wing Travis Bader was limited to 2-of-11 shooting from long range. He finished with 8 points.
Bader is the son of former MSU administrative assistant, Rich Bader.
"We did a heck of a job on Travis Bader," Izzo said. "I mean he has really been playing well. He was just coming off of 7-for-12 (from 3). That kid has taken more shots in our gym than most of our kids have. We put a lot into him. We put three-fourths of our scouting report on him. That says a lot for his ability and his character."
Comp's Take: Reasons For Concern?
For the short term, sure. Izzo hasn't been able to work with a full roster of runners, jumpers and shooters. The Spartans have avoided losses, but they haven't been able to build and improve. They haven't been able to return to the fast style of play that they spent all October trying to develop.
Meanwhile, this was a night for Kearney and Byrd to step up and show they could manage the wing positions with Trice and Harris out. Kearney and Byrd struggled. They'll get another chance on Sunday against Louisiana-Lafayette (12 p.m., Breslin). They need to take advantage of that opportunity.
Payne and Nix continue to develop, individually and as a tandem. They were good tonight.
Valentine was guilty of playing too fast in the early minutes, but was successful in lowering his RPMs and delivering some game-changing moments in the second half. Appling and Valentine are improving as backcourt care-takers.