For the first time since early January, the Michigan State Spartans finally looked like the the team that many thought would be a fierce contender for the National Championship. They played with grit, toughness, heart, passion, energy, and enthusiasm for 40 minutes. Tom Izzo finally was able to get his team to play up to their potential for an entire game. The #22 Spartans (23-7, 12-5) handled #24 Iowa (20-10, 9-8) 86-76, but the score does not indicate the way the Spartans throttled the Hawkeyes in second half. The convincing lead allowed all three seniors, Keith Appling, Adreian Payne, and Dan Chapman, to leave the Breslin Center floor for the final time to a standing ovation and exit with a traditional kiss of center court. I truly believe the kiss of the floor is one of the great senior day/night traditions in all of college basketball. I remember my last game as an Izzone member in 2011, ironically a mid-week senior night game against Iowa. I was fortunate enough to be able to go on to the Breslin Center floor afterwards, and kiss the Spartan logo at center court. That is one moment I will never forget for the rest of my life, and these seniors will never forget their last moment in the Breslin either.
The Spartans and the Hawkeyes both came out of the gates shooting the lights out in the first 8 minutes of the game. At one point, the Hawkeyes were shooting 87.5% from the floor and 100% from 3-point range. This made the Spartans 71.5% from the field look like child’s play at the time. Devyn Marble looked unstoppable for stretches in the first half, as the Spartans tried to slow him down with multiple defenders. Harris, Valentine, Dawson, Appling, and Trice all took a shot at slowing down Marble at one point. Marble finished the first half with 16 points to lead all scorers, and helped boost Iowa to a 41-39 halftime lead. Valentine did the bulk of his scoring in the first half (13 points, 9 assists, 6 rebounds), but hit big shots at big times to keep the Spartans in the mix. That was the last time that Iowa would lead the rest of the game.
The Spartans came out playing inspired and hungry to begin the second half. It was if this team, and especially the seniors, were not going to allow their final home game to end in defeat. Michigan State started the second half on a 9-0 run to go back in front 48-41, and forced Iowa coach Fran McCaffery to call an early timeout. Keith Appling looked the best he has looked since returning from a wrist injury, which was more than a pleasant sight for all of Spartan Nation. When Appling hit his first three-pointer to put Michigan State up 53-45, the Breslin Center exploded in celebration. This was Appling’s first made three-point field goal since January 28th, ironically, in an overtime win at Iowa. He finished with 12 points, 3 rebounds, and 3 assists in his final home game. Dick Vitale even said, “Appling finally looks like Appling!” The Spartans really never looked back from that point forward, and rode that momentum throughout the remainder of the second half.
Gary Harris scored 12 points, but most of these came in the first half. Harris was sidelined for much of the second half with lingering cramps in his legs. However, Travis Trice stepped up big in his absence. Trice surprisingly lead the Spartans with 17 points, and hit big threes to extend the lead multiple times. Branden Dawson played great defensively, really helped the Spartans with the battle of the boards, and brought consistent energy. He finished just two shy of double-digits with 8 points, 7 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1 block. Last but not least, Adreian Payne also had a nice bounce back game with 14 points, 4 rebounds, and 1 block in his Breslin Center curtain call.
The game turned a little chippy in the second half with Iowa’s Zach McCabe getting into it with quite a few Spartans. This lead to a Fran McCaffery technical foul, which seemed to be mostly out of frustration as the Spartans lead was nearly 20 at the time. McCaffery and his staff did not appreciate the extended substitution sequence, which included the Spartan seniors kissing the floor. As I recall, in 2011 McCaffery was extremely animated for the exact same reason on Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers’ senior night. Lucas probably went a little overboard on the curtain call, and McCaffery went nuts. However, McCaffery should have known what was going to take place this time around and handled it better. The Spartans responded to the physical play in the second half like a Tom Izzo coached team should. They played with confidence, swagger, and toughness. They will need to continue to play with all of that and more going forward, almost as if there is a chip on their shoulder. And there should be a chip on their shoulder, they have something to prove to the country. This was as much of a collective team win as this team has had all season, and it came at the most crucial time. Five Spartans finished in double figures, and Dawson was a bucket away from making it six. Not one player over 20 points, that is the definition of a collective team effort. There aren’t many teams in the country that can do that on a consistent basis. I believe, when healthy, the Spartans are one of those teams.
This win guaranteed a couple of different things. First, it guaranteed that the Spartans would not match the record for losses at the Breslin Center in a single season. The record is 5 and was first set in the 1992-93 season, and also matched in Tom Izzo’s first season 1995-96. Second, it ensured that the Spartans will have a first round bye in the Big Ten Tournament next weekend. They will be either the 2 or 3 seed depending upon what they do at Ohio State on Sunday afternoon, and depending upon what Wisconsin does at Nebraska Sunday night. If both Michigan State and Wisconsin win or lose, then Wisconsin will be the 2 seed and Michigan State will be the 3 seed. If Michigan State wins and Wisconsin loses, then Michigan State will be the 2 seed. Regardless, it will set up a potential championship game matchup between the Spartans and Wolverines. The Wolverines secured the 1 seed when they won the Big Ten outright Tuesday night at Illinois. The Spartans would absolutely love another chance at the Wolverines, there is no doubt about that. Winning the Big Ten Tournament would not carry as much weight as winning the regular season championship, but it would definitely help boost Michigan State in terms of seeding for the NCAA Tournament. In addition, if the Spartans were to beat the Wolverines for the tournament championship, then I believe the Spartans would go into the NCAA Tournament with tremendous momentum. Hopefully, the Spartans can carry the momentum of this Iowa win into a big road win in Columbus on Aaron Craft’s senior day. Go Green!