If the Michigan State Spartans thought they were in for an easy ride Thursday night within the friendly confines of the Breslin Center, they were wrong.
The 13th-ranked Spartans barely scraped their way to an 80-75 win over the unranked Illinois Illini, a team that won just once in its prior five games. A strong second half was preceded by a dreadful first.
Down 37-27 at the half, the Spartans (18-4, 7-2) were dangerously close to suffering back-to-back losses for the first time this season.
However, great players score when their team needs them to most, and such was true for junior point guard Keith Appling, who poured a game-high 24 points -- along with eight rebounds, seven assists and a block -- on the Illini (15-7, 2-6).
Appling's heroics were put on center stage late in the game as the Spartans desperately clung to a minimal lead. Like he has thrice before this year, Appling found his way to the line, made acrobatic layups and dished out jaw-dropping assists Thursday to ensure victory for coach Tom Izzo, who turned age 55 on Wednesday.
Illinois jumped out to an 8-0 lead within the opening minutes. With confidence at an apex, the Illini commanded each offensive possession and turned over the ball just once in the first 20 minutes.
Myke Henry scored eight of his 11 points in the first half, sinking 3 of 3 attempts from the field. However, he was rendered ineffective by the Spartans' defense in the final 20 minutes, struggling to find an open lane to drive to the hoop or a suitable spot to shoot a jumper from.
Illinois' guard production was respectable, with J.J. Abrams leading the way with a team-high 16 points. D.J. Richardson chipped in with 14 points and Brandon Paul finished the night with 13.
Spartans freshmen Gary Harris and Denzel Valentine each scored 14 points. Harris' intensity coming from the break helped the Spartans spin a 14-0 run. However, he later left the game with a "tweaked foot," according to ESPN announcers.
Valentine's points were scored quietly, but his much-needed hustle energized his once-lethargic team.
Branden Dawson, in true Branden Dawson fashion, scored 12 points. His alley-oop dunk (assisted by Appling) electrified the Izzone, the Spartans' student section, and sent a shockwave through the Illini.
Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix each scored eight points.
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