North Carolina's roller-coaster season continued Wednesday night, as the Tar Heels went into East Lansing and had their way with No. 1 Michigan State, controlling most of the game en route to a 79-65 victory.
Youngsters Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks, Marcus Paige, Nate Britt and J.P. Tokoto all scored in double figures for the Heels, who are now 5-2 with wins over MSU and Louisville to go with losses against Belmont and UAB.
Yahoo! Sports' Pat Forde summed up the Heels' unpredictability:
In a performance not typical of Tom Izzo's Spartans, Michigan State gave up 16 offensive rebounds, settled for too many threes (7-of-24), shot 35.9 percent from the field and were out-hustled on both ends of the court.
If the Spartans, who are now 7-1, came out of the gate any more flat, they would have been pancakes. With a complete lack of energy or interior defensive presence, they fell into a 24-12 deficit after just 10 minutes.
With about six minutes left in the half, however, Izzo's squad finally woke up. On the shoulders of forwards Adreian Payne and Matt Costello, who was supposed to be limited with the flu, the Spartans went on a 12-2 run and tied the game up at 32 as the teams entered intermission.
But every time the Spartans made a mini-run, the Heels answered.
When Keith Appling hit a three to tie the game at 38 two minutes into the second half, Paige got a three-point play and Meeks scored on three straight possessions. When Appling knocked down another three to tie the game at 49, Johnson responded with two quick buckets and Tokoto scored six in a row to push the lead 59-51 at the under-eight timeout.
The Spartans would never cut the lead to below eight again.
If you need any examples of the parity in college basketball, look no further than this game, as the up-and-down Heels outworked, out-hustled and outplayed the top-ranked Spartans for 40 minutes—which, even according to coach Roy Williams, was a bit surprising:
Gary Harris (17 points), Payne (16) and Appling (13), who were all temporarily sidelined with injury, led the Spartans.
J.P. Tokoto, North Carolina: B+
Tokoto turned in his second productive game in a row, as he filled out the box score with 12 points, 10 rebounds, two assists and a block in just 23 minutes of action.
Although he finished with four turnovers and made a couple of silly plays and fouls, the positives far outweighed the negatives for the sophomore, whose athleticism and activity level around the hoop were real problems for the Spartans.
He pulled down five offensive rebounds, and although his jump shot is still not reliable, it's impossible not to applaud his energy.
Keith Appling, Michigan State: B
Was it the most productive game of the year for Appling, who has been one of the best point guards in America this season? Certainly not. He finished with 13 points on 15 field-goal attempts.
Still, he had four rebounds and three assists to just one turnover and deserves credit for playing nearly the entire second half after suffering an excruciating-looking fall on his hip late in the first half.
Brice Johnson, North Carolina: A-
The 6'9" sophomore Johnson is still adding strength and learning how to be a complete player, but one thing about his repertoire that has never really been questioned is his offense.
He showed why on Wednesday.
On his way to 14 points, Johnson scored with his back to the basket, scored by overpowering Branden Dawson, scored off offensive rebounds and scored from mid-range. Oh, and he also added six rebounds (four offensive) and two blocks.
With Johnson and Kennedy Meeks (15 points, seven rebounds) coming off the bench, Carolina has some really impressive depth—and future—down low.
Matt Costello, Michigan State: B+
Izzo wasn't planning on giving many—if any—minutes to Costello, but when Alex Guana got into early foul trouble and Gavin Schilling was ineffective, the sophomore was forced to come on despite battling the flu.
Well, whatever flu he had, I want it.
Costello made several plays on both sides of the court, finishing with six points, four rebounds and four blocks in 17 minutes. On a night when Michigan State lacked both energy and interior toughness, his presence was huge for the Spartans.
The Tar Heels host UNC Greensboro on Saturday, while the Spartans get a significant nine-day break before taking on Oakland on the road next weekend.
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