EAST LANSING, Mich. — Early Tuesday evening, just hours before his team tipped off against third-ranked Ohio State, Tom Izzo walked into the Michigan State locker room and found forward Adreian Payne in tears.
“I can’t go, coach,” Payne told Izzo. “I can’t go.”
Payne had battled through the discomfort of plantar fasciitis for the last month, but on Tuesday the inflammation in his left heel was almost unbearable. Trainers tried to alleviate the soreness by experimenting with new ways to tape Payne’s foot, but after attempting to warm up in the practice gym, he still couldn’t fathom how he’d play.
Then he returned to the locker room.
“Coach was emotional,” Payne said. “I’m a senior. I’m supposed to be a leader. I knew my teammates needed me. I wanted to set an example.
“I told him I’d give it a shot.”
Hours later, the No. 5 Spartans found themselves circling the Breslin Center court, high-fiving fans following a 72-68 overtime victory over the previously unbeaten Buckeyes.
Payne, playing off pure adrenaline, scored 18 points and snared six rebounds in the victory, which came after Ohio State fought back from a 17-point deficit to force overtime.
The other hero was senior point guard Keith Appling, who added 20 points, six rebounds and seven assists—including the go-ahead three-pointer—despite being plagued by severe cramps throughout the game.
“I watched Appling’s leg tighten up like a rock in the first half,” Izzo said. “He was getting worked on in every huddle from halftime on. I can’t tell you how much that kid sucked it up tonight. And Adreian Payne did, too.”
That Tuesday’s victory was keyed by its walking wounded only seemed fitting for Michigan State, which may be the nation’s toughest team—in the nation’s toughest conference.
“You’re never going to be able to let up (in the Big Ten),” guard Gary Harris said. “You can’t relax.”
Indeed, the Big Ten boasts more depth than any league in America. Whether it’s Illinois beating Indiana in overtime, Wisconsin topping Iowa by four or Michigan squeaking by Minnesota, almost every game thus far has been a slobber-knocker.
And it’s still early January.
If there’s one negative to the Big Ten’s physical nature, it’s that the grind could leave its teams feeling worn down by the time the NCAA tournament starts.
The Big Ten hasn’t won a national title since 2000. Even with five ranked teams this season (not to mention 2013 NCAA runner-up Michigan), no school will be considered a shoo-in for the Final Four after completing a rugged conference slate.
“It just keeps coming,” said Ohio State coach Thad Matta, whose team faces 20th-ranked Iowa on Sunday. “It doesn’t get any easier.”
Of course, things certainly won’t get any more difficult than they were Tuesday for both the Spartans and Buckeyes.
Along with Payne’s foot injury and Appling’s cramps, Michigan State was without backup point guard Travis Trice, who was so ill that he didn’t even show up at the arena. That meant Gary Harris had to play 42 minutes, which was a challenge considering his conditioning isn’t 100 percent after missing two games last month with an injured ankle.
“We survived,” Izzo said. “Great teams (find ways) to survive.”
Yet Izzo wasn’t pleased.
Instead, he was downright seething about the effort of almost every player on his roster not named Payne or Appling following Ohio State’s furious comeback.
He said forward Branden Dawson turned in the type of “milk-carton performance”—meaning he was missing—that plagued him during the first month of the season. He chided Denzel Valentine for a no-look pass in the waning minutes that almost hit ESPN broadcaster Mike Tirico in the face. And, other than one strong stretch in the second half, he wasn’t pleased with Harris.
The Buckeyes outscored Michigan State 20-3 over the final 7:07 of regulation to force overtime.
“I’m a big-picture guy,” Izzo said. “You shouldn’t have those kind of meltdowns no matter what the other team does. To lose a lead like that, it’s hard to feel good about (the win).”
Izzo was baffled as to why his team played so poorly after performing so well in the game’s early stages. Michigan State committed a season-low four turnovers in the first half and only had seven before Ohio State made its run.
Michigan State also scored 20 points in transition against a Buckeyes team that was allowing 7.4 transition points per game, a mark that ranked fourth in the nation.
“We were beating them at some of the things they’re good at,” Izzo said. “We probably played some of the greatest basketball we’ve played for 30 minutes.”
But then things began to unravel, as Ohio State sparked its comeback by forcing nine Michigan State turnovers in the final seven minutes of regulation. When the Spartans returned to the bench prior to overtime, Izzo said they looked “shell-shocked.”
“I can’t say they were fired up,” Izzo said. “I think they were ticked off. It’s OK to be ticked off. If you have no passion for something, it won't bother you.
“If Travis Walton is over there throwing chairs like he used to...I like that. That turns me on. I like that. We didn’t have enough of that. We had a little bit of a glazed face, deer-in-the-headlights look. We’d just lost a 17-point lead after playing some of our best basketball.”
Michigan State proved resilient in overtime, when Appling broke a 66-66 tie on a three-pointer with 27.5 seconds remaining. The Spartans never trailed again.
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“It was a boxing match out there, a wrestling match,” Izzo said. “As good as they were, we just ran out of gas.”
The Spartans will have to refuel in a hurry. Surging Minnesota visits East Lansing on Saturday. After that, it’s a two-game road trip to Northwestern and Illinois.
“I don’t know what will happen next game, but we’re going to be a little more ready,” Izzo said. “That’s a promise.
“Right now I’ll find solace in the fact that our seniors were warriors. It says a lot about a team to lose a 17-point lead and then bounce back and win it. It takes some character.”
In the Big Ten, you can’t afford to have anything less.